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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 with


colleagues, friends, and students, I have a long-standing attachment to Argentine
social science. I am particularly pleased to look back at my collaboration with
Carlos Nino, whose premature death was a great blow to your country and to the
academic community. Later, I have collaborated very profitably with, among
others, Carlos Acuna, Roberto Gargarello, Gabriel Negretto, and Julia Maskivker.
Most recently, Dean Spector and I have done some joint detective work in tracing
the origins of some currently fashionable ideas in social choice theory back to
early twentieth century Italy and early nineteenth century France. Although I have
not visited Argentina for scholarly purposes for more than twenty years, I am
confident 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 I
shall use to describe the nature of his crisis is obscurantism. I shall also
distinguish between hard and soft obscurantism. The second is probably the most
familiar. There are perhaps five main branches of soft obscurantism: Marxism,
psychoanalysis, functionalism, the various forms of “French theory”, and most
recently the post-colonial and subaltern theories coming out of the Indian
subcontinent. They have in common the lack of respect for standards of argument
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and evidence. They have nothing in common with what has traditionally been
thought 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 outstanding
instance of a genuinely scientific approach to social phenomena. I shall contest
this claim. In my opinion, economics as well as its offshoots in political science
offer many examples of hard obscurantism. While the arguments are coherent and
compelling, because of their mathematical form, their relevance for understanding
social 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 degenerates
into something which is not worthy of the name econometrics, but ought rather to
be called playometrics”. The importance of playometrics, and of science-fiction
economics 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 I
criticize 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 this
enterprise. A number of public-spirited scholars have taken time off from their
own work to criticize and denounce obscurantism in detail, sentence by sentence
or equation by equation.
In this talk I shall try to do three things.
First, I want to document and illustrate the pervasiveness of obscurantism in
the social sciences. This will take up the greatest part of the talk. It goes without
saying that in the span of one hour, I cannot go deeply into the theories I shall
discuss and denounce. Yet I believe that with one exception, to which I shall
return, I could back up my statements with detailed and specific criticism.
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Second, I shall speculate briefly on the causes of obscurantism. They are, I


believe, psychological, sociological, and institutional. Sadly, one of the
mechanisms 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 have
no simple recipe, but I believe that history and psychology will be the key
disciplines. Formal quantitative methods certainly have a place, but only when
they 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 is
also a problem for society. To put it differently, obscurantism may cause harm as
well as waste. To the extent that it causes scholars and students to devote time and
other resources to expounding and studying worthless theories, the only effect is
waste. To the extent that obscurantist theories are used as premises for action, they
can 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 some


examples.
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I begin with the bottom right-hand corner. Lévi-Strauss’s early work on kinship
systems, although deeply flawed empirically, was not obscurantist. His later work on
analysis of myth seems to me, however, impenetrable and lacking in intersubjective
validity. It is closer to numerology or astrology than to science. In France and
elsewhere, it was nevertheless deeply influential, by holding out the prospect of
creating the sociological analogue to Mendeleff’s periodic table of the elements. Since
the heyday of structuralism is over, and the theory seems to have left few traces, I shall
not discuss it any further.
Functionalism, however, is well and alive, as I discovered upon my recent return
to France. While functionalism as a mode of analysis was born in sociology and
anthropology, it is I believe, a very general attitude, rooted, I believe, in our desire to
find meaning in the world. To give a flavor of the approach, I can cite the claim that
the function of feuds and vendettas is to keep population size at a sustainable level.
While this may perhaps be an effect of feuding, the term “function” implies that feuds
can be explained by that effect. But this is getting thing backwards: science explains
phenomena by their causes, not by their effects.
The functionalist ideas of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu retain an immense
and immensely pernicious influence on French social science. According to these
writers, social practices of the most varied kind can be explained by their tendency to
maintain the hegemony of dominant groups. If some practices appear to have a
different effect, that fact is itself explicable by the “need of the system” to maintain a
facade of impartiality. This functionalist mind-set is readily identified by the pervasive
use of verbs (or verbal nouns) without subjects, as in the statements I have italicized in
the following excerpt from Foucault’s enormously influential Discipline and Punish:

But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the
failure of the prison: what is the use of these different phenomena that are
continually being criticized; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement
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of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual


delinquent, the organization of a closed milieu of delinquency Perhaps one should
look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution,
which, after purging the convicts by means of their sentence, continues to follow
them by a whole series of 'brandings' (a surveillance that was once de jure and
which is today de facto; the police record that has taken the place of the convict's
passport) and which thus pursues as a 'delinquent' someone who has acquitted
himself of his punishment as an offender? Can we not see here a consequence
rather than a contradiction? If so, one would be forced to suppose that the prison,
and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but
rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not so much
that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they
tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection.
Penality would then appear to be a way of handling illegalities, of laying down
the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on others,
of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralizing certain
individuals and of profiting from others.

I am confident, on the basis of serving on French dissertation committees and on


intellectual encounters of other kinds, that this general attitude remains very pervasive.
Currently, the main term of art is that of a “dispositif” – any kind of institution or
behavioral pattern that can be claimed to have the effect or function, directly or
indirectly, in the short run or in the long run, of perpetuating the rule of the elites. We
can learn from Foucault’s own words how he erected this apparatus into some kind of
supraindividual agent:

I understand by the term “apparatus” [dispositif] a sort of - shall we say - formation


which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to
an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function. This may
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have been, for example, the assimilation of a floating population found to be


burdensome for an essentially mercantilist economy: there was a strategic
imperative acting here as the matrix for an apparatus which gradually undertook
the control or subjection of madness, sexual illness and neurosis.

The functionalism of Pierre Bourdieu relies in part on his concept of “habitus”, or


“disposition to act” in a certain way. By and large, the existence of a habitus is proved
only by the phenomena it purports to explain. The appeal to this idea reminds me of
Molière’s parody of the soft obscurantists of his day. He pictures a candidate for a
medical degree being solemnly asked why opium puts people to sleep. Just as
solemnly, the candidate replies “because there is in it a dormitive power whose nature
it is to lull the senses to sleep”. The answer is greeted by a happy congratulatory
chorus: “You have responded well indeed, you are most worthy to join our learned
brotherhood!” Today, he would have received a high citation count.
Bourdieu’s functionalism also relies in part on his tendency to see strategies
everywhere. Every behavior that directly or indirectly benefits the agent is presented as
a strategic behavior, even in the absence of any evidence that the agent intended his
behavior to produce these benefits. Thus even behavior that is motivated by purely
disinterested concerns is viewed as strategic, because disinterestedness is often
rewarded.
Among the other entries in the bottom right-hand cell of the table, let me briefly
mention psychoanalysis. In France and Argentina, and to a lesser extent in other
countries, this approach to the mind is still taken seriously. As a theoretical enterprise,
it lacks any scientific foundation. With some important exceptions, the study of
psychoanalysis is a waste of time. This is particularly true of the more extreme
representatives, such as Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein. Since I cannot in this short
talk offer evidence, let me just cite from a recent editorial in Nature:

Psychology: a reality check


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Anyone reading Sigmund Freud’s original work might well be seduced by the
beauty of his prose, the elegance of his arguments and the acuity of his intuition.
But those with a grounding in science will also be shocked by the abandon with
which he elaborates his theories on the basis of essentially no empirical
evidence. This is one of the reasons why Freudian-style psychoanalysis has long
since fallen out of fashion: its huge expense – treatments can stretch over years –
is not balanced by evidence of efficacy (Nature editorial October 15 2009)

The two phrases I have italicized correspond to my charges of obscurantism and


waste. Although psychoanalysis as a form of therapy may have fallen out of fashion
in many countries, many scholars still rely on its theoretical framework.
I shall not dwell on multiculturalism and post-modernism as sources of waste, but
simply cite the penetrating criticisms by Brian Barry, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.
But let me say a few words about Marxism. I used to belong to the so-called “non-
bullshit Marxist” group, created around 1980, in which we tried to sort out what was
living from what was dead in the thought of Karl Marx. We were so successful in the
negative task that in the end very little was left. In my own view, the only contribution
of Marx that is left standing is his normative conception of the good life as one of
active and joint self-realization. Marxist theory has nothing to contribute to empirical
social science. Yet in spite of its intellectual bankruptcy, Marxism continues to be
taught in universities all over the world, in the characteristically obscurantist style of
shared verbal reflexes masquerading as arguments.
From waste, let me turn to the harm that can be caused by soft obscurantism. In
the 1960s and beyond, Bruno Bettelheim persuaded many that the cause of autism lay
in uncaring parents, especially in the “refrigerator mother”. The view, which had no
basis in evidence and is today known to be false, caused needless feelings of guilt in
parents of autistic children. Similarly,

The fact that the memories of victims and witnesses can be false or inaccurate
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even though they believe them to be true has important implications for the legal
system and for those who counsel and treat victims of crimes. Some
psychotherapists use techniques that are suggestive (along the lines of, «you don’t
remember sexual abuse, but you have the symptoms, so let’s just imagine who
might have done it»). These can lead patients to false beliefs and memories,
causing great damage to the patients themselves and to those who are accused. In
one Illinois case, psychiatrist Bennett Braun was accused by his patient, Patricia
Burgus, of using drugs and hypnosis to convince her that she possessed 300
personalities, ate meat loaf made of human flesh and was a high priestess in a
satanic cult. By some estimates, thousands of people have been harmed in similar
ways by well-meaning providers who apply a ‘cure’ that ends up being worse
than the disease. (Elizabeth Loftus)

In a Norwegian case, a father was accused of sexual abuse of his daughter. On the
basis of her statements, an expert psychologist testified that the sharp fence posts in the
child’s drawing of a house surrounded by a fence very likely had a sexual significance.
She affirmed, moreover, that the number of posts in the fence very probably indicated
the number of occasion on which the child had been abused. The child’s father spent
two weeks in jail, in a security cell, was barely acquitted of incest, but his life was
ruined. Later, the child confessed that it was all an invention. The alleged perpetrator
was the victim.
It goes without saying that in one sense, Marxism has caused untold harm.
Whether Marxism as a theory, rather than a practice or a rationalization for actions
undertaken on other grounds, has done actual harm is not obvious. The Stalinist idea of
“objective complicity”, while consistent with some functionalist aspects of Marxism,
probably reflects a very general tendency of the human mind. The more specific idea
of “crisis maximization” or la politique du pire – things have to get worse (be made
worse) before they can get better – does perhaps have a more direct Marxist ancestry.
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Here again, however, there are many non-Marxist examples of this strategy. After
1790, Louis XVI used it, for instance. On a more general level, however, Marx’s
successors took over his intellectual hubris and notably his belief in an historical
progression with a desirable, inevitable and foreseeable outcome. The most serious
charge that can be laid against Marx is that his contempt for what he called “bourgeois
rights” probably had a direct influence on the massive human rights violations that his
successors carried out.
Let me conclude this discussion of soft obscurantism by a provocative question:
might the science of man, as well as society itself, have been better off if Marx and
Freud had never lived? I am not prepared to argue for an affirmative answer to this
question, but I do not think it can be dismissed out of hand.
I now move on to discuss what for many will be more controversial and surprising
claims about hard obscurantism.
There have been many attempts to explain human behavior using quantitative
models. The most prominent ones are perhaps rational-choice theory, including game
theory, agent-based modeling, and network theory. What little I know about the last
two tends to make me skeptical, but I cannot make any strong claims about them. A
long familiarity with rational-choice models has, however, fostered a skepticism that
is, I hope, better grounded.
Before I state the grounds for my skepticism of rational-choice theory, let me
emphasize that for some purposes it is highly valuable. In my opinion, the
development of rational choice theory, as a conceptual tool for understanding human
action and interaction, has been the greatest achievement of the social sciences to date.
I shall give some examples later. It is, moreover, an indispensable policy tool for
changing behavior, for the simple reason that people usually respond to incentives in
predictable ways. What I deny is that it has a privileged status as an explanatory tool.
To achieve explanatory success, a theory should, minimally, satisfy two criteria: it
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should have determinate implications for behavior, and the implied behavior should be
what we actually observe. These are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones.
Rational-choice theory often fails on both counts. The theory may be indeterminate,
and people may be irrational. In what was perhaps the first sustained criticism of the
theory, Keynes emphasized indeterminacy, notably because of the pervasive presence
of uncertainty. His criticism applied especially to cases where agents have to form
expectations about the behavior of other agents or about the development of the
economy in the long run. In the wake of the current economic crisis, this objection has
returned to the forefront. Before the crisis, going back to the 1970s, the main
objections to the theory were based on pervasive irrational behavior. Experimental
psychology and behavioral economics have uncovered many mechanisms that cause
people to deviate from the behavior that rational-choice theory prescribes.
Disregarding some more technical sources of indeterminacy, the most basic one is
embarrassingly simple: how can one impute to the social agents the capacity to make
the calculations that occupy many pages of mathematical appendixes in the leading
journals of economics and political science and that can be acquired only through
years of professional training? Here are some frequently made answers to this
question, with my rejoinders:
1. We should accept a theory if it produces correct predictions even if we do
not understand how it does so (quantum mechanics). Rejoinder: the social
sciences produce very few correct predictions, except for the short-term
impact of small changes in economic variables.
2. Even though agents are incapable of intentional maximizing in complex
situations, natural or social selection will eliminate non-maximizers.
Rejoinder: this is mere handwaving. No explicit model exists.
3. Individual errors will cancel each other in the aggregate. Rejoinder: there
is no reason to think that errors are symmetrically distributed around the
correct answer.
4. An expert billiard player whose experience helps him figure out the angles
would be utterly incapable of solving the relevant equations; yet he acts as if
he could. Rejoinder: nobody can be an expert in all the situations economists
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apply rational-choice theory. Development of expertise in any field is said to


require 10, 000 hours of practice.

With regard to irrationality, I shall only produce a list of robust mechanisms that
have been shown to generate behavior that violates rational-choice theory:

• hyperbolic time discounting


• loss aversion
• the sunk-cost fallacy and the planning fallacy (especially deadly in
conjunction)
• the tendency of unusual events to trigger stronger emotional
reactions (an implication of “norm theory”)
• the cold-hot and hot-cold empathy gaps
• trade-off aversion and ambiguity aversion
• anchoring in the elicitation of beliefs and preferences
• the representativeness and availability heuristics
• the conjunction and disjunction fallacies
• the certainty effect and the pseudo-certainty effect
• choice bracketing, framing, and mental accounting
• sensitiveness to changes from a reference point rather than to
absolute levels
• status quo bias and the importance of default options
• meliorizing rather than maximizing
• motivated reasoning and self-serving biases in judgment
• flaws of expert judgments and of expert predictions
• self-signaling and magical thinking
• non-consequentialist and reason-based choice
• overconfidence and the illusion of control
• spurious pattern-finding

Many scholars – not just rational-choice theorists – find the rapidly expanding
array of mechanisms uncomfortably large. Some are also worried by the fact that
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unlike rational-choice economics, behavioral economics does not rest on a unified


theory. Rather, it consists of a bunch of theories or mechanisms that are not
deductively linked among themselves. Human behavior seems to be guided by a
number of unrelated quirks rather than by consistent maximization of utility. In fact,
there are so many quirks that one suspects that for any observed behavior, there would
be a quirk that fits it. While these qualms are understandable, they do not amount to
reasoned criticism. Behavioral economics is here to stay.
With regard to data analysis, I cannot make claims to first-hand competence. I rely
on the work of David Freedman, an acknowledged master of pure and applied
statistics. He carried out detailed analyses of six articles published in leading academic
journals: four from American Political Science Review, one from Quarterly Journal of
Economics, and one from American Sociological Review. One of them was named
“best article of the year” by the journal where it appeared. The number of mistakes and
confusions that he finds – some of them so elementary that even I could understand
them – is staggering.
Friedman demonstrated the many pitfalls, fallacies and temptations that arise in
regression analysis as it is routinely carried out. He also observed that social scientists
fail to take an elementary precaution that would reduce the risk of “data mining” and
“curve fitting”. They could put half the data in cold storage, as it were, estimate the
model against the other half, and then see how well the estimated model fits the data in
cold storage. Whereas this procedure is a routine practice in medical or biological
studies, it is not recommended in social science textbooks nor required by social
science journals. It seems to me that the neglect of an existing cure for bias itself
amounts to a form of bias.
Let me cite two of my favorite among Friedman’s statements. The first is taken
from a famous article on “Statistical models and shoe leather”:
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A crude four-point scale may be useful:


1. Regression usually works, although it is (like anything else) imperfect and
may sometimes go wrong.
2. Regression sometimes works in the hands of skillful practitioners, but it
isn’t suitable for routine use.
3. Regression might work, but it hasn’t yet.
4. Regression can’t work.
Textbooks, courtroom testimony, and newspaper interviews seem to put
regression into category 1. Category 4 seems too pessimistic. My own view
is bracketed by categories 2 and 3, although good examples are quite hard to
find. (David Friedman,)

When I have presented my objections to data analysis to various audiences, my


critics have usually located themselves at point (1) of this scale.
The second statement I shall cite offers a caricature – which like any good
caricature reveals important features of its object – of the responses that modelers
might make to his criticism:

The Modelers’ Responses


We know all that. Nothing is perfect. Linearity has to be a good first
approximation. Log linearity has to be a good first approximation. The
assumptions are reasonable. The assumptions don’t matter. The assumptions
are conservative. You can’t prove the assumptions are wrong. The biases
will cancel. We can model the biases. We’re only doing what everybody else
does. Now we use more sophisticated techniques. If we don’t do it, someone
else will. What would you do? The decision maker has to be better off with
us than without us. We all have mental models, not using a model is still a
model. The models aren’t totally useless. You have to do the best you can
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with the data. You have to make assumptions in order to make progress. You
have to give the models the benefit of the doubt. Where’s the harm? (David
Friedman.)

I shall return to the question of harm. First, however, there is the issue of
waste. I believe that much work in economics and political science that is inspired
by rational-choice theory is devoid of any explanatory, aesthetic or mathematical
interest, which means that it has no value at all. I cannot make a quantitative
assessment of the proportion of work in leading journals that fall in this category,
but I am confident that it represents waste on a staggering scale. I believe, but less
confidently, that the same is true is true of many instances of data analysis.
The amount of harm is more difficult to assess. I do not know of any detailed
study discussing the importance of modeler hubris in the 1998 collapse of Long
Term Capital Management, costing investors 4.5 billion dollars, or in the current
financial crisis. Greed, short-termism and deregulation may have been more
important than unwarranted confidence in the Nobel-prize-winning models.
Although one can cite many examples of fund managers telling their clients that
according to their models a crisis of the magnitude of what has happened since
2007 would only occur once in n years, n being some very large number, it
remains to be shown that these managers actually believed in the models and used
them as decision premises. After all, as we have learned, they had very little to
lose if the models got it wrong.
This being said, I find it hard to believe that excessive belief in the efficiency
of markets and the rationality of market participants did not play some role in
generating the crisis. Since the information that is reflected in prices is a public
good, nobody has an incentive to produce it. This free-rider problem generates
mechanical diversification of assets as a substitute for due diligence. The “Warren
Buffett remedy”, similar to the “shoe-leather sociology” that David Freedman
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proposed to keep data analysis honest, is shoe leather investment.


Turning now to the possible harm caused by data analysis, we may consider
the impact of Chicago-style economics on legislation concerning the death
penalty and gun control. In one summary,

In 1975, Isaac Ehrlich's analysis of national time-series data led him to claim
that each execution saved eight lives. Solicitor General Robert Bork cited
Ehrlich’s work to the Supreme Court a year later, and the Court, while
claiming not to have relied on the empirical evidence, ended the death
penalty moratorium when it upheld various capital punishment statutes in
Gregg v. Georgia and related cases.

Although Ehrlich’s work was discredited, a new wave of studies claimed to


have found similar effects. Commenting on an analysis that challenged these
findings, Ehrlich said that ”If variations like unemployment, income inequality,
likelihood of apprehension and willingness to use the death penalty are accounted
for, the death penalty shows a significant deterring effect”. In sobering contrast,
Christopher Achen warns that “A statistical specification with more than three
explanatory variables is meaningless”. There are just too many ways to fiddle
with the numbers.
Similar remarks apply to a claim by John Lott cited by John Ashcroft as
Attorney General in the Bush administration - that the right to carry concealed
handguns saves lives. Commenting on Lott’s work, one scholar writes that “The
academic survival of a flawed study may not be of much consequence. But,
unfortunately, the ill-effects of a bad policy, influenced by flawed research, may
hurt generations.” In other words, we can tolerate waste, but we should not accept
harm.
The advocates of the death penalty and right-to-carry laws will respond that
these measures tend to reduce harm. In a discussion of life-life tradeoffs, Cass
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Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule defend the death penalty on these grounds. To be
sure, they qualify their argument as a conditional one, valid only if the empirical
claims stand up. Yet they display considerable hubris when, as legal scholars with
no econometric training, they assert that “One leading study finds that as a
national average, each execution deters some eighteen murders” and proceed to
discuss the implications. If they had read David Freedman, they would have
understood that the idea of executing people on the basis of any kind of statistical
analysis is morally unacceptable. There is just too much uncertainty about the
facts to warrant this irreversible action.
If you are willing to grant me the claim that soft and hard obscurantism are
sufficiently widespread to justify worry, you may have asked themselves about
their causes. As I said at the outset, the causes may be psychological,
sociological, or institutional.
At the psychological level, hard obscurantism may be due to the widespread
belief that “social science” can or must become a science, on the model of the
natural sciences. While talk about “physics-envy” may be too strong, there may
be an unconscious desire to emulate the most prestigious scientific disciplines.
The highly sophisticated theories hold out the promise of satisfying this desire. At
a more mundane level, the high prestige of mathematical social science goes
together with very high salaries. A young scholar with a talent for mathematics
may easily be lured by the prospect of rising to the top of the profession. At the
same time, the normal workings of self-deception may prevent him from
understanding that he is weaving a web of froth. Finally, self-selection may cause
recruitment into these professions to be biased in favor of scholars who are
subject to the relevant forms of hypertrophy and atrophy to begin with.
To understand the psychological roots of soft obscurantism, I suggest that we
turn to the phenomenology of scholarship. When we believe we have found the
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cause of a phenomenon, there occurs a mental click of satisfaction. Other mental


operations can also trigger clicks. There is the click of observing a similarity
between the phenomenon and another one, the click of observing that the
phenomenon has consequences that benefit someone or something, and the click
of observing that some other phenomenon could have been the cause of the
phenomenon we are studying. Because all these observations satisfy our deep-
seated need to find order, patterns and meanings in the universe, they trigger a
click that is easily mistaken for the real thing, which is the click of explanation. I
offer this not as an established truth, but as a hypothesis that might explain the
grip that analogies, functional explanations and just-so stories have on the mind.
These attempted shortcuts to knowledge also owe a great deal of their attraction
to our unwillingness to admit ignorance. As Montaigne said, “Many of this
world’s abuses are engendered - or to put it more rashly, all of this world’s abuses
are engendered - by our being schooled to be afraid to admit our ignorance and
because we are required to accept anything which we cannot refute.”
Although these explanatory suggestions may, in a given case, have some
force, they lack the necessary sociological dimension. The persistence over time
of pseudo-science at a large scale is a collective phenomenon, which must be
sustained by mechanisms of social interaction. I shall discuss two possible
mechanisms: mind-binding and pluralistic ignorance.
The idea of mind-binding draws on the practice of foot-binding of Chinese
women. Although crippling and horribly painful, foot-binding persisted as a bad
equilibrium. Given that no parents would let their son marry a woman who did
not have her feet bound, it was in the interest of the parents of girls to adhere to
the practice. No family had an incentive to deviate unilaterally. Yet the practice
stopped, over the span of a few decades, by successful collective action. Because
people came to perceive that the practice made everybody worse off than they
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could be, groups of parents came together to pledge in public that they would not
bind the feet of their daughters nor marry their sons to women whose feet were
bound.
Mind-binding perpetuates hard obscurantism because departments have to
train their students in abstruse mathematical techniques. If they don’t, the students
will not get a job in elite departments, just as Chinese women without their feet
bound could not get married. Mind-binding differs from foot-binding, however, in
an important respect. Even before foot-binding was abolished, it was widely
perceived as absurd and perverse, a perception that eventually led to its demise.
By contrast, most chairs of departments of economics and political science
probably do not perceive themselves as being in a bad equilibrium. To the extent
that individuals scholars are seized with occasional doubts, as, being human, they
can hardly fail to be, a look at what their colleagues are doing may assuage their
worries or at least prevent them from speaking up. This remark brings me to the
second interaction-based mechanism, pluralistic ignorance.
This idea dates from 1835, when Hans Christian Anderson published his tale
about the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. It was given a more theoretical formulation
five years later, in the second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,
and then rediscovered by psychologists in the early nineteenth century. In an
extreme case, pluralistic ignorance obtains when no member of a community
believes a certain proposition or espouses a certain value, but each believes that
everybody else holds the belief or the value. In the more common case it obtains
when only a few members hold the belief or the value in question, but most of
them believe that most others do.
In the case of economic and statistical models, pluralistic ignorance would
obtain if each scholar, although secretly worried about the fragility or irrelevance
of the procedures, kept quiet because of the perception that his colleagues are
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firmly convinced of their validity. There are several mechanisms that might be at
work here. From my own experience I know very well how a scholar’s
confidence in his own judgment can be undermined by the fact that the majority
thinks differently. How could all these people, who are certainly smarter than I
am, be so wrong? Also, even with unshakeable self-confidence a scholar might
worry that speaking up might cause ostracism and career obstacles.
Finally, hard and soft obscurantism will be hard to eradicate because of recent
institutional developments. Today, the scientific community increasingly seeks to
base tenure decisions and funding decisions on quantitative criteria, notably on
citation counts. To the extent that these criteria are used together with qualitative
criteria, which are based on some competent evaluators actually reading the
literature, this development may not be a bad thing. There is a real danger,
however, that high citation numbers are now turning into a sufficient criterion for
excellence. Since hard obscurantistst tend to cite other hard obscurantists, and soft
obscurantists tend to cite other soft obscurantists, and since there are plenty of
scholars in each camp, they can perpetuate themselves as a group by citing one
another.
The high citation counts of soft obscurantists are especially striking. If we
look at the number of citations on Google Scholar, we find the following
numbers:

Pierre Bourdieu 92 300


Pierre Bourdieu & “habitus” 48 700
Michel Foucault 202 000
Michel Foucauld & “dispositif” 6 900
Homi Bhabha 29 200
Anthony Giddens 36 100
20

Jacques Lacan 42 700

Amos Tversky 12 700


Thomas Schelling 7 400
Robert Dahl 14 800
Erving Goffman 26 300
Fredrik Barth 5 500

These are rough numbers. Different search engines give different result. Yet
the order of magnitude is the same.
The first five are soft obscurantists. The last five are not obscurantist at all,
but represent what I believe to be the best or among the best scholars in,
respectively, psychology, economics, political science, sociology and
anthropology over the last half century. As you can see, not even the best serious
scholars can compete with even a marginal soft obscurantist.
By citing the last five names, I have proposed an implicit definition of non-
obscurantist social science. An explicit definition is hard to give. I could simply
say that good social science respects facts, logic, and common sense. But I shall
try to go beyond that trite statement, by offering some examples of simple, robust
causal mechanisms.
I have already cited two examples: the idea of a bad equilibrium, and that of
pluralistic ignorance. A third example can be taken from Tocqueville’s
Democracy in America.

Our fathers had a peculiar opinion of marriage. Having observed that what
few marriages of inclination were made in their time almost always badly,
they resolutely concluded that it was very dangerous to consult one’s own
heart in such matters. Chance struck them as more clairvoyant than choice
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He then goes on to show why this conclusion was unjustified. Suppose that in
an aristocratic society two young people marry for love. By going against the
current they will tend to encounter the hostility of their friends and relatives, a
situation that, as Tocqueville says, “soon breaks their courage and embitters their
hearts”. In a society in which this practice was general, this effect would not arise.
He also points to another mechanism that explains why we cannot generalize from
exceptional cases to the general case. For a man to marry for love in societies in
which this practice is uncommon he must have, in Tocqueville’ words, “a certain
violent and adventurous cast of mind, and people of this character, no matter what
direction they take, rarely arrive at happiness or virtue”. And one might add that a
marriage of two people of this disposition is even less likely to be happy. For me,
this argument is a model of how to think about society.
A further example is provided by an analysis of the puzzling fact that people
sometimes burn their bridges or their boats. It would seem that no rational
individual would ever throw away a resource that might prove useful. Any such
behavior must be irrational. Yet Thomas Schelling showed that it can make
perfect sense. Suppose that the general of Country I is debating whether to invade
Country II to take possession of a contested piece of territory:

If both generals are rational, Country I will attack and Country II will retreat.
Yet if the general of Country II burns his boats or his bridges, making retreat
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impossible, he will have to fight. Because the general of Country I can anticipate
this reaction, he will choose to negotiate. In other words, by discarding one of his
options, the general of Country II can achieve a better outcome. Sometimes, less is
more.
The analyses of bad equilibria and of the rationality of burning one’s bridges
rely on game theory, one of the most powerful tools of the social sciences. It is the
perfect tool for understanding the conceptual structure of human interaction. It can
help us understand why people sometimes do not cooperate even when it is in
their objective interest to do so, and why in other situations they do manage to
cooperate. Game theory is only useful, however, to the extent that it does not
impute excessive cognitive abilities to social agents. When it does so, it ceases to
be social science and turns into science fiction, or hard obscurantism.
Thomas Schelling once told me that before he wrote his path-breaking work
The Strategy of Conflict, in which he showed how it could be rational to burn
one’s bridges, he spent a year or two reading randomly in military history. I
believe in fact that history should be one of the two unifying disciplines of the
social sciences. By virtue of their knowledge, good historians can pick out the
“telling detail” as well as the “robust anomaly”, thus providing both stimulus and
reality check for theorists. The other unifying discipline is what one might call the
science of choice. Today the study of choice is divided among psychology, micro-
economics, and behavioral economics. In the future I believe these will fuse into a
single discipline, relying on laboratory experiments as well as on field studies.
If I am right, my conclusions also have implications for graduate training in
the social sciences. Today, students of sociology have to read Durkheim, Marx
and Weber; students of economics read Adam Smith and Ricardo; students of
political science read Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. Without denying
that these readings can be useful, I find it scandalous that students are not also
required to read works in social history, economic history, and political history. At
the same time, they should learn how to do laboratory experiments and field
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experiments to test their theories.


Some students could, to be sure, be left to pursue the abstract mathematical
models. Attempts to understand the actions and interactions of ideally rational
agents, who have never existed and never will, can have a certain aesthetic value.
They may even on occasion have some mathematical value. As long as nobody
pretends that the models have an explanatory value, they will not be privileged in
the curriculum or in the reward system, as they are today.
In conclusion, I have to confess some skepticism about whether my
arguments will have an impact. Soft obcurantists are not interested in arguments.
The only way to affect them is to make them shoot themselves in the foot, as Alan
Sokal did in his famous hoax, but as the obscurantists are now forewarned, that is
unlikely to happen again. As for hard obscurantism, the guild of economists and
high-tech political scientists forms an almost impregnable bastion of highly skilled
professionals, who do not believe in anyone’s credentials but their own. They will
not listen to outsider criticism. Although insider critics are now somewhat more
common than they were thirty years ago, they usually, in my opinion, share too
many assumptions with the obscurantists.
While I am afraid that obscurantism is here to stay, I do not think it will come
to dominate the social sciences completely. I have great faith in the invincible
curiosity of the human mind.