Stephen M. Walt

Lessons for the social sciences

For those of you who are curious about the relationship between scholarship and the real world, with particular reference to the social sciences, I recommend FT columnist John Kay’s recent essay "The Map is Not the Territory: An Essay on the State of Economics." Kay is an experienced professional economist himself, and the essay is ...

For those of you who are curious about the relationship between scholarship and the real world, with particular reference to the social sciences, I recommend FT columnist John Kay’s recent essay "The Map is Not the Territory: An Essay on the State of Economics." Kay is an experienced professional economist himself, and the essay is a penetrating critique of the kind of divorced-from-reality thinking that has dominated a lot of macroeconomic research over the past few decades. As you’ll see if you read the piece, he’s especially irritated by the unwillingness of some prominent macroeconomists (including Nobel Prize winners like the University of Chicago’s Robert Lucas) to acknowledge that the failure to anticipate the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 casts some well-founded doubt on the direction that economic thinking has taken in recent decades.

Kay’s essay also contains some valuable lessons for political science and other academic disciplines. My favorite passage:

For many people, deductive reasoning is the mark of science, while induction – in which the argument is derived from the subject matter – is the characteristic method of history or literary criticism. But this is an artificial, exaggerated distinction. ‘The first siren of beauty’, says [macroeconomist John] Cochrane, ‘is logical consistency’. It seems impossible that anyone acquainted with great human achievements – whether in the arts, the humanities or the sciences – could really believe that the first siren of beauty is consistency. This is not how Shakespeare, Mozart or Picasso – or Newton or Darwin – approached their task.

The issue is therefore not mathematics versus poetry. Deductive reasoning of any kind necessarily draws on mathematics and formal logic; inductive reasoning is based on experience and above all on careful observation and may, or may not, make use of statistics and mathematics. Much scientific progress has been inductive: empirical regularities are observed in advance of any clear understanding of the mechanisms that give rise to them. This is true even of hard sciences such as physics, and more true of applied disciplines such as medicine or engineering. Economists who assert that the only valid prescriptions in economic policy are logical deductions from complete axiomatic systems take prescriptions from doctors who often know little more about these medicines than that they appear to treat the disease. Such physicians are unashamedly ad hoc; perhaps pragmatic is a better word.

Needless to say, I like this argument because I believe it is important for the social sciences to be a diverse intellectual ecosystem instead of a monoculture where one approach or method reigns supreme. Even if one approach or theoretical model were demonstrably superior — and that is rarely, if ever, the case — there would still be considerable value in having lots of other scholars working in different ways. Sometimes we learn by exploring deductions in a formal model (though we often just restate the obvious when we do); at other times we learn by "soaking and poking" among policymakers, by constructing a data set and exploring patterns within it, or by immersing ourselves in the details of historical cases or by exploring the categories of thought and discourse that surround a given policy domain. Given that all these approaches yield useful knowledge, why would any serious department want to privilege one approach over all others?

But because academic disciplines are largely self-defining and self-policing (i.e., we determine the "criteria of merit" and success depends almost entirely on one’s reputation among fellow academics), there is the ever-present danger that academic disciplines spin off into solipsistic and self-regarding theorizing that is divorced from the real world (and therefore unlikely to be refuted by events) and of little value to our students, to policymakers, or even interested citizens. This tendency occurs primarily because proponents of one approach naturally tend to think that their way of doing business is superior, and some of them work overtime to promote people who look like them and to exclude people whose work is different. Anybody who has spent a few years in a contemporary political science department cannot fail to have observed this phenomenon at work; there just aren’t very many people who are genuinely catholic in their tastes and willing to embrace work that isn’t pretty much like their own.

This situation creates a real dilemma: if you believe in academic freedom (and I do), then you don’t want outside authorities interfering in the production of knowledge, telling academics how to do their work, or setting stupid criteria for evaluating scholarly contributions. But without some pressure to be at least potentially relevant, the social sciences are prone to drift off into what Hans Morgenthau once decried as "the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical — in short, the politically irrelevant." I’ve already touted my own prescriptions for this problem here, but I don’t have enormous confidence that any of them will be heeded. But at the risk of seeming to tout my own employer (and similar programs elsewhere), that’s why I increasingly expect the most interesting and relevant work to emerg from schools of public policy, and not from the increasingly arcane worlds of traditional disciplinary departments.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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