Wednesday, November 19, 2003
In the Metaphysical Club Louis Menand traces the development of American intellectualism from the Civil War until close to the beginning of WWI. Part of the dramatic development at that time included the veritable creation of the concept of "social sciences". The idea, which is taken for granted today, was to apply the scientific method to the study of society. Evolution, as pursued by Darwin and other evolutionary thinkers, provided a more specific method of analysis. Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (also treated in the Metaphysical Club) wrote a landmark work called The Common Law, which laid down the argument that the Law was not based on Logic, but on experience. He goes on to explain how the Law "grew". Holmes' work was immensly influential, and I have seen him quoted as one of the earliest figures in the current dominating theory of law: law and economics. Theories about the law, it seems, also grow. Which brings me to my point. Unlike the physical or biological sciences, the study of society cannot make observations in isolation from the subjects. Certainly, blind studies are possible -- but eventually studies are translated to theories and those theories are disseminated. Theories about law eventually, even inexorably, effect the law itself. So, how can the scientific method be applied to social studies? There is a joke among scientists; they like to say that "The universe doesn't care how we think it works, it just works." This joke and the maxim underlying it cannot be applied to societies. The study of society inevitably effects society, so one way or another, a model of society is in danger of becoming inaccurate because knowledge of that model spreads through the society it is meant to represent. There are obvious examples of these changes -- social darwinism and the role of law and economic theory in the creation of policy. I believe that one of two strategies may prove more effective than the direct modeling of society itself. Both are variations on applying the scientific method to evidence other than human agents: - information flow, for example the dissemination of different social theories - Situational factors, for example the weather, options prices, location, age, and so on In both cases, the theory is to measure and model the underlying engines of social change, rather than a given society. Furthermore, the hope is that these engines are consistent across societies, and do not bend to prevailing theories about their function.