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Is Social Science ‘Science’?

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A highly praised book that lays bare the presuppositions that inform the “science” of social science invites readers to rethink how they interpret what is popularly considered “real,” not to mention “human.”

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Jason Blakely is professor of political science at Pepperdine University and has written a book, We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power, that is likely to perturb some, gratify others, but interest almost everyone. He writes on the many ways in which social scientific methodologies, while purporting to describe in a neutral manner individuals and societies, in fact generate new conceptions of their subjects that then feed into a “double-hermeneutical” (double-H) loop: Social scientists imagine the world through various presuppositions and then analyze and contextualize data in ways that can only reinforce their original theories.

At his best, Blakely gives readers the tools to interrogate the methods of social scientists who, intentionally or not, have smuggled serious philosophical claims into their work under the guises of “objectivity,” “neutrality,” and, yes, even “science.” However, readers of a more conservative bent will inevitably notice Blakely’s bias in favor of his own left-communitarianism. Still, We Built Reality is worth considering for its illumination of the ways in which so much ground-breaking social science ultimately leads not to a broader understanding but a narrower reimagining of humanity.

In “The Market Polis,” the book’s first and most provocative section, Blakely describes the escape of economic analytic tools like the Rational Choice Model and utility maximization, as well as such macro-metrics as GDP and stock indices, from the carefully proscribed confines of academic discourse and high finance into a “vulgarized” rhetoric that captured the popular imagination. “Individual well-being and social prosperity were carefully decrypted via this symbology,” writes Blakely, perhaps best epitomized by James Carville’s simple yet evocative phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” during the 1992 presidential election.

Blakely argues that, while in the past Americans were certainly attuned to material suffering and prosperity, by the late 20th century this “vulgarized” version of economics devoid of “ethical-political terms like exploitation, fairness, greed and dignity” had taken hold of our collective imagination. Although “two centuries earlier, economics had been a form of thinking inseparable from philosophy and history,” now “history and culture [had] disappeared from economics in favor of a kind of formalistic social physics.”

It was in part the egoistical logic of “vulgarized” economics, epitomized by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, that led “realtors … investors, politicians, lenders, developers and consumers” to make the selfish but rationally self-interested choices that led to the housing crisis of the 2000s. But beyond such vulgarization, even the policies supported by economics in its pure academic form cannot deliver on promises of shared wealth and prosperity, as the inability of any economist to predict the Great Recession shows. With this in mind, both the academic and popular imaginaries created by economics fail to live up to expectations as the social science equivalent to physics.

The causes of the Global Financial Crisis are, of course, sharply disputed, though Blakely is not interested in wading into those debates; nowhere is the easy monetary policy of the Federal Reserve referenced nor the unwise choices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For many, the level of oversimplification, in the first section and beyond, necessary to tell his tale of how social science rebuilt reality will be a critical flaw that makes the book unworthy of further consideration.

Even so, Blakely’s story of the invasion of every facet of culture by explanatory theories purporting to be exclusively buttressed by cold, hard, empirical science has resonance. Again, his discussion of Freakonomics, a popularization of economics Nobel-laureate Gary Becker’s work, which taught such revolutionary ideas as altruism being but another form of self-interest, is worth quoting:

What Freakonomics communicated to huge numbers of readers was a highly vulgarized, simplified version of academic economics that cheerfully borrowed from the latter’s reputation for scientific authority to advance its own status and agenda. In this way, a popular economic science teaching the inescapability of egocentrism gained all the inevitability of astronomy and heliocentrism. The rationally calculative actor was at the center of the social world, just as the sun was at the center of the solar system, and no amount of moral kvetching or philosophizing could make it otherwise.

Compare this with the scene in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov learns from Marmeladov that “Mr. Lebeziatnikov, who keeps up with modern ideas, explained the other day that compassion is forbidden nowadays by science itself, and that that’s what is done now in England, where there is political economy,” in reference to John Stuart Mill, the famed 19th century economist and utilitarian philosopher.

But is it really true that economists have made us incapable of thinking in any terms but utility and efficiency? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. In Mary Hirshfeld’s Aquinas and the Market, the Villanova professor of economics and theology describes the difficulty with the discrete positive and normative split economists deploy against accusations of smuggling an implicit ideology into their work:

We can observe that “efficiency” is invariably used in an evaluative sense. Politics and institutions are better or worse to the extent that they are more or less efficient. … Economic analysis is taken seriously by policy makers and the public at large because economics is thought of as the science of improving well-being, at least in a material sense.… Were economists to seriously adopt the view [that their inability to differentiate between socially healthy and unhealthy preferences is a key strength,] it would seem that economics would no longer command the public attention it currently enjoys. Yet most economists do in fact want to influence public policy.

Hirschfeld goes on to describe having a substantive anthropology as the antidote to economics’ alleged ethical blindness; without a thick, meaningful conception of what human beings are and what they require around which a solid notion of a healthy society can be formed, the abstracted, deracinated homo economicus dominates by default. Though Blakely doesn’t specifically reference anthropology in the Thomistic tradition, he does invite readers to consider how questions of a humanistic nature (“What does it mean to be human?”), are frequently rephrased as matters of objective and empirical science.

Are all today’s pressing issues solvable exclusively by technocratic means, or are there any mysteries left for philosophers and theologians, poets and novelists, to explore? Blakely believes the latter and, therefore, that social science must ultimately be interpreted in a way more similar to the humanities than the natural sciences because humans are meaning-making creatures who

imbibe the treatises of the social sciences (or their vulgarized variants), which make seismic changes in or leave subtle traces on their own beliefs and behaviors. By contrast, subatomic particles cannot read treatises on quantum mechanics, flowers do not contemplate botany, and chimpanzees do not read the latest theories of primatology.

It’s for this reason that the Freakonomists’ “discovery” that there’s no such thing as compassion free from egoism, as Mr. Lebeziatnikov believed, is but a reflection of their own stunted anthropology. Many of the highlights that make We Built Reality worth reading follow the pattern set in the first section: that of exposing the ideologies promoted by an ostensibly rational, neutral social scientific framework.

For example, political scientist David R. Mayhew has argued that politicians are best understood as “exclusively engaged in one of three activities … advertising accomplishments, taking credit for policy outcomes, and ostentatiously adopting electorally popular positions.” Yet this method of analysis reimagines humanity in a way that negates every virtuously selfless statesman ever, from Cincinnatus to George Washington. Likewise, psychologist Steven Pinker’s assertion that the mind is essentially analogous to a computer invites us to perceive conditions like depression and anxiety not as moods “that attuned an individual to the reality of loss or injustice within society” but instead “reduced [them] to a mechanics by the metaphor of Homo machina.”

All told, We Built Reality is a concise introduction to interpretive (hermeneutical) philosophy that will open the eyes of readers to the unstated but highly debatable presuppositions so much of the social science that populates our imagination rests upon. Some sections, like Blakely’s castigation of American foreign policy for its “deterritorialized empire,” are annoyingly oversimplified and don’t even pretend to engage with obvious critiques; nowhere in that chapter is the notion of preferring American hegemony, however flawed, to domination by a genocidal authoritarian China addressed. Even so, if readers can look past the more nakedly partisan elements of the book, they may find themselves increasingly rehumanized.

James Diddams

James Diddams is managing editor of Providence Magazine. His writing has appeared in First Things, Providence Magazine, and The American Conservative. He graduated with honors from Wheaton College (IL) with majors in art history, economics, and philosophy. He was also a fellow with the John Jay Institute. He’s on Twitter @ChristLover1997 and his website is