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JElster Crisis of the Social Sciences

JElster Crisis of the Social Sciences

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Published by Martin Tanaka
Discurso de la ceremonia del Doctorado Honoris Causa, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, 1 de noviembre 2010
Discurso de la ceremonia del Doctorado Honoris Causa, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, 1 de noviembre 2010

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Published by: Martin Tanaka on Nov 20, 2010
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07/10/2013

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THE CRISIS OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
 by
Jon Elster 
I am very pleased to be honored by this reward. Through my interaction withcolleagues, friends, and students, I have a long-standing attachment to Argentinesocial science. I am particularly pleased to look back at my collaboration withCarlos Nino, whose premature death was a great blow to your country and to theacademic community. Later, I have collaborated very profitably with, amongothers, Carlos Acuna, Roberto Gargarello, Gabriel Negretto, and Julia Maskivker.Most recently, Dean Spector and I have done some joint detective work in tracingthe origins of some currently fashionable ideas in social choice theory back toearly twentieth century Italy and early nineteenth century France. Although I havenot visited Argentina for scholarly purposes for more than twenty years, I amconfident that it will not be another twenty years before my next visit!Let me now turn to my
discours de réception
.I believe that the social sciences are in a profound state of crisis. The word Ishall use to describe the nature of his crisis is
obscurantism
. I shall alsodistinguish between hard and soft obscurantism. The second is probably the mostfamiliar. There are perhaps five main branches of soft obscurantism: Marxism, psychoanalysis, functionalism, the various forms of “French theory”, and mostrecently the post-colonial and subaltern theories coming out of the Indiansubcontinent. They have in common the lack of respect for standards of argument
 
and evidence. They have nothing in common with what has traditionally beenthought of as
 science
. In many countries, these paradigms dominate large parts of anthropology, psychology, sociology and political science.Many scholars will accept this rough description of a sad state of affairs.They will add, however, that the discipline of 
economics
provides an outstandinginstance of a genuinely
 scientific
approach to social phenomena. I shall contestthis claim. In my opinion, economics as well as its offshoots in political scienceoffer many examples of hard obscurantism. While the arguments are coherent andcompelling, because of their mathematical form, their relevance for understandingsocial phenomena is often close to nil. Forty years ago, my compatriot Ragnar Frisch, one of the first winners of the Nobel prize in economics, wrote that“econometrics must have relevance to concrete realities—otherwise it degeneratesinto something which is not worthy of the name econometrics, but ought rather to be called playometrics”. The importance of playometrics, and of science-fictioneconomics more generally, has steadily increased since that time. Up to a certain point, I am not against playfulness – but not if it also claims to be science!Soft obscurantists tend to criticize hard obscurantists, and vice versa. When Icriticize
both sides
, each of them may easily assume that I belong to the other side.Alternatively, each side may take me for an ally in their fight against the other side. Neither situation is particularly pleasant. Fortunately, I am not alone in thisenterprise. A number of public-spirited scholars have taken time off from their own work to criticize and denounce obscurantism in detail, sentence by sentenceor equation by equation.In this talk I shall try to do three things.First, I want to document and illustrate the pervasiveness of obscurantism inthe social sciences. This will take up the greatest part of the talk. It goes withoutsaying that in the span of one hour, I cannot go deeply into the theories I shalldiscuss and denounce. Yet I believe that with one exception, to which I shallreturn, I could back up my statements with detailed and specific criticism.
2
 
Second, I shall speculate briefly on the causes of obscurantism. They are, I believe, psychological, sociological, and institutional. Sadly, one of themechanisms that have been put in place to ensure quality of scientific work,citation counts, may in fact serve to entrench obscurantism.Third, I shall discuss how one can do non-obscurantist social science. I haveno simple recipe, but I believe that
history
and
 psychology
will be the keydisciplines. Formal quantitative methods certainly have a place, but only whenthey are sufficiently simple and robust to cast a light on social reality.Obscurantism, as I see it, is not only a problem for the social sciences. It isalso a problem for 
 society
. To put it differently, obscurantism may cause
harm
aswell as
waste
. To the extent that it causes scholars and students to devote time andother resources to expounding and studying worthless theories, the only effect iswaste. To the extent that obscurantist theories are used as premises for action, theycan cause severe harm. Hence we get four categories:HARD OBSCURANTISM SOFT OBSCURANTISM 
Long-term Capital Management Theories of autism (Bettelheim)
HARM
Current financial crisis Theories of memory repression
 
Statistical arguments for death Marxism (Marx) penalty and against handgun controls
 
Science-fiction economics Multiculturalism (Iris Young)
WASTE
Science-fiction political science Post-modernism (Latour)
 
Many regression analyses
 
Structuralism (Lévi-Strauss)
 
Subaltern theory (Homi Bhabha)Functionalism (Bourdieu, Foucault)Psychoanalysis (Lacan, Klein)Marxism (Badiou)
I cannot illustrate or discuss all of these, so I have to limit myself to someexamples.
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