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Friday, September 08, 2006

Social Science and Our Ignorance part II

Beyond the inherent difficulty of dealing with the complex phenomena that are such a large part of the social sciences there came to be an adoption of methodologically flawed approaches of study. Initially arising in the Age of Reason, they constituted the abuse of reason. This fine book review captures some of the important elements of this abuse.

In his The Counter-Revolution of Science, first published in 1952, Hayek carefully dissects and systematically analyzes positivism and historicism—two sociological doctrines which helped provide the basis for modern socialistic theories. This critique is profound and well worth the while of anyone seriously interested in the methodology of the social sciences and the history of economic thought.

It is not very surprising, therefore, that it became fashionable to try to adapt the physical science methods to almost every discipline. However, they are completely inappropriate to the study of human action and society. Explaining why this is the case is the subject of Hayek’s book.

Hayek points out that all science starts with classification. In the physical sciences, objects are classified by unchanging characteristics that are both measurable and distinguishable by controlled and objective tests. But not in the social sciences. The social sciences deal with the actions of men. And men are not automatons. Men think. They have different values, varied goals and many purposes. Men choose among alternatives. They act purposively. Their actions cannot be classified without reference to their subjective (personal) ideas, values and goals. The results of their actions cannot be quantified, measured or predicted in advance. Moreover, changes are always taking place. The ideas, values, aims, choices and actions of men vary from time to time, depending on actual conditions and the knowledge available to them.

Individuals Ignored

Modern socialists, and their intellectual predecessors whose doctrines Hayek examines, sought to analyze and plan society as a whole. In doing this, they ignored individuals and their ideas, values and purposes. And they also overlooked the inevitability of change. Yet many professors and authors, whose teachings and books are widely respected today, are still influenced by the fallacies Hayek criticizes, which stem from the belief that society may be analyzed and planned by using the methods of the physical sciences—observation, experimentation and measurement.

Those who seek to reform society and cope with social problems must learn to appreciate the role of freedom in the evolution of useful, if unplanned, social institutions.

This book should help readers recognize the impossibility of successful central planning and of trying to create social institutions by design. It will also explain to serious scholars the important distinctions between the methodologies of the physical and social sciences.


Bret said...

It's amazing to me how timeless Hayek's works are. Though this particular book was written over a half-century ago, it just as true and relevant today. Unfortunately, its teaching will probably be equally true and relevant - and mostly ignored - in one-hundred and perhaps even one-thousand years.

Duck said...

It's not just the persistence of the central planning impulse in the face of historical evidence of its futility that amazes, it is the impulse to centrally plan economies in the first place that begs explanation. Where is the need? Why are so many people convinced that economies cannot function without central planning? What problems are they trying to solve?

Oroborous said...

Well, free markets aren't problem-free.
They don't respond to indirect costs very well, they're prone to manias, and their participants squander most of the profits and surpluses realized on frivolities.