Are we blinded by mathematics?

Is ‘social science’ actually science?

On the one hand, social scientists use scientific methods. On the other, there is a great deal in the social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology and sociology) that is not experimentally testable or falsifiable. The theories in those disciplines are not philosophically equivalent to, say, the theory of gravity or the theory of natural selection. If they were, then they’d be part of science tout court, not social science. Indeed, one could argue that there are aspects of our humanity that are too human for anything but the humanities to make sense of (and thank God for it).

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There are some social sciences that shade into the life sciences – a lot of psychology and anthropology, for instance. But even where there is no overlap, the extent to which social sciences rely on quantitative data merits a distinction from the humanities too.

Though careful measurement and statistical analysis can’t always be used to arrive at falsifiable theories in the proper scientific sense, quantitative methods can still deepen our understanding of a phenomenon. After all, that’s how biology, chemistry and physics got their start before they became fully-fledged sciences.

And yet numbers can be dangerous. They can confer an impression of objectivity where one isn’t warranted. Indeed, there’s no better way of convincing others (and yourself) of your own B.S.1 than by expressing it in mathematical form.

This is especially true of one social science in particular – economics. Writing for Foreign Policy about the state of the discipline today, Fareed Zakaria begins by noting its elevated status:

“It has become first among equals in the social sciences and has dominated most policy agendas as well. Economists have been much sought after by businesses, governments, and society at large, their insights seen as useful in every sphere of life… At the root of all this influence is the notion that economics provides the most powerful lens through which to understand the modern world.”

Many leading businesses and political organisations not only employ economists, but also a ‘chief economist’. Rather fewer employ a chief psychologist, let alone a chief sociologist.

However, Zakaria says that the economists’ “hegemony is now over”.

Certainly, the standing of the discipline has never been the same since the global financial crisis at the end of the last decade:

“As Paul Krugman noted in a September 2009 essay in the New York Times Magazine, ‘Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.’”

If the world’s astronomers had failed to predict a devastating asteroid strike, there’d be some very searching questions asked of the profession. Potentially, they’d have their excuses: ‘Our telescopes weren’t pointing in the right direction! We didn’t have enough resources! The politicians don’t listen to us!’ However, if it turned out that the astronomers did have all the equipment, resources and attention they needed, but still didn’t spot the asteroid because their own theories blinded them to the possibility, there’d be a deep crisis of confidence in the entire discipline.

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Which is what we’ve seen in the case of economics:

“In October 2008, Greenspan, a lifelong libertarian, admitted that ‘the whole intellectual edifice … collapsed in the summer of last year.’

“For Krugman, the reason was clear: Economists had mistaken ‘beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ …they’d fallen in love with the supposed rigor that derives from the assumption that markets function perfectly. But the world had turned out to be more complex and unpredictable than the equations.”

Is maths the explanation for what went wrong, then? Did the (literally) formulaic nature of modern economic theory stop economists from seeing the world as it really is?

Maybe, but what if the cause-and-effect runs in the other direction? What if the oversimplified view of human economic behaviour was constructed in order to mathematise it – i.e. maths not as the origin of the misconception, but its objective?

Zakaria says that economics “remains a vital discipline”, but that we also need the other social sciences to round out our view of humanity. I’m sure that’s right, yet any implicit faith that we place in these disciplines should be despite, not because of any numbers they throw at us.

Maths in the context of public policy is paradoxical – serving as both a curtain and a window. To those who don’t really get it (i.e. most of us), maths conceals the inner workings of an argument; but to those who can decipher the symbols and read the code, the mathematical structure of a theory makes plain its inner logic and underlying assumptions. Where words conceal, numbers reveal – but only to those who understand them.

So, yes, let’s have economics and all the social sciences contributing to public policy. But let’s also have the quantitative foundations of each discipline thoroughly inspected by mathematically-literate and independently-minded outsiders.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we need you!

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  1. Beloved science