Social Sci – Not

By February 1, 2017 No Comments

Economics is sometimes called a “social science”, a potentially misleading term and maybe even an oxymoron.  In the “hard sciences” we study things.  Things never change their behavior because their behavior is built into what they are.  In fact, the behavior of water, boiling at 100 C, is one of the factors that help us identify a substance as being water.

In social studies (the term I prefer) we are studying the behaviors and interactions of people, and people, unlike things, can and do change their behavior.  As a result we cannot do side by side tests against a control to see the impact of changing a given variable.  Experiments can’t be repeated across time and geography and researcher to confirm results.  For example, there’s no way we can go back and have Napoleon win at Waterloo and see whether Tomas Paine still escapes execution by the French many years later.

Anyone in the social studies should recognize this limitation and resist the temptation to ape the vocabulary and methods of the hard sciences.  It turns out that social studies can’t predict as many things as the hard sciences, but the fairly limited conclusions we can draw are profoundly important.  For instance, simply having universal understanding and respect for the laws of supply and demand would alleviate untold misery and mischief across the globe.  Perhaps a contribution on par with the steam engine.