In 2002 Stanford and NYU political scientist Russell Hardin published an article that asked a number of questions about political science, including whether the fact that much of its academic work may seem obscure and irrelevant to the public is a problem, in PS: Political Science and Politics (Whither Political Science?).
Hardin wrote that an economic consensus had occurred on important policy issues and asked
“Has the less apparently relevant work of modern economics contributed to that concurrence? A similar question would be worth tackling not only in economics but in many other disciplines. The huge number of people working on economics and economic problems suggests that most of them cannot be doing anything that rises to the level of public awareness, so few of them can have had much direct effect on public debates or policies. That might be too quick and dismissive a claim, however, because someone such as Larry Summers, whose economic advice was centrally important for several years during the Clint administration, could not likely have achieved his own understanding without the large enterprise of academic, research institute, industrial and governmental research on economic issues. It is not trivially easy and maybe not analytically possible to ferret out the connections between the thousands of journal articles over the past 50 years and the counsel that a Summers has had to offer. Yet it would be absurdly presumptuous to dismiss the relevance of all that work, as abstract or minutely focused as much of it was. Somehow, the enterprise of economic science has been fundamentally important." (Hardin 2002, 183).
Hardin defends the vast amount of seemingly irrelevant or unproductive work in academia on the grounds that it does indeed inform policy in an important way, at least in the long run. The “thousands of journal articles over the past fifty years” were "fundamentally important” to modern economic policy decisions. It would be hard to choose a better example than this to illustrate the point of this blog.
By 2008 the US economy was in a financial meltdown and the crisis in which we are still in began. It is widely attributed to the polices (with their intellectual roots in Milton Friedman) of Alan Greenspan along with Summers, who while at Harvard, the World Bank, and as Secretary of the Treasury of the United States was in the forefront of the academic argument for deregulation, in favor of ever more complicated derivatives, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act.
In 2010, from among the 11,000 subscribers of the heterodox Real World Economics Review, 7,500 voters chose Summers as one of the top ten economists most responsible for the modern financial crisis, third behind Greenspan and barely behind Friedman himself. Although (purposefully) over-the-top, the economic website zero-hedge was able to ask “Is Larry Summers an Economic War Criminal?” (Zerohedge.com. Link).
Summers’ policies have been utterly disastrous for the US economy (more on the Economics page). If this is what, in the words of Hardin, “the large enterprise of academic, research institute, industrial and governmental research on economic issues” and “thousands of journal articles over the past 50 years” leads to, then the utility of the social sciences (at least economics in this case, but the problem is wider) must be questioned.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~This webpage, then, asks the question: Are the social sciences useful?
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, economics as taught in most departments has been argued to be useless, or worse still, "dangerous to know", its theories leading to wrongheaded policies that caused the current economic crisis and continue to make it worse.
Development aid and public policy initiatives are frequently shown to be ineffective, and like economics, often worse than doing nothing due to serious unintended consequences. Sociology, Political Science, Human Geography - all have been argued to be suffering from crises of progress, failing to provide useful policy advice, nor do they engage, inform and enrich the public (the common defense of the Liberal and Fine Arts). Political scientists failed to predict major events such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring. Architects and urban planners' policies led to dysfunctional, antisocial, unhealthy, environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable built environments, especially in the United States, ("new urbanism" concepts that are reverting to traditional human friendly building forms were laid out, to a striking degree singlehandedly, by anti-academic Jane Jacobs).
In the UK, for example, "Social scientists hoping to influence government policy are likely to find that their pearls of wisdom fall on deaf ears. An independent review of the state of social sciences finds that, while the volume and quality of UK research is second only to the US, the “real world” of government and wider society remain unconvinced of its value." ("Antisocial Science?" 2003).
This website seeks to consider this point of view. Are the social sciences in crisis? If so, can they be better? Can they help in the creation of a better society? What are the worst aspects of modern social science, and what are the best?
At the moment the site is mainly focused on linking to other material. There are many excellent critiques of the social sciences, and I wanted to put them all on one site, as a resource, and to see what is common between them.
Much of the site is focused on macroeconomics ( and development / international aid), and urbanism. These are two areas where mainstream academic approaches have not only shed little light, but have actively caused significant harm. Mainstream economics and the policies it has developed is directly responsible for the current financial crisis in the developed world. International aid has largely failed and frequently caused negative unintended consequences in the developing world. And academic influences on urban policy, especially in the United States, were a major cause in the decline of the quality of life in the United States. I also look at political science, sociology and other areas of the social sciences.
The goal of this project is to document both successes and problems with the social sciences. The following sources highlight some problems in the various disciplines. They are listed first to support the contention that there is indeed a problem. Successes will be considered later. Also, these are mostly "big picture" critiques. Of course there are many more specific internal disputes within social science disciplines. Some of these will be considered in greater detail at a later date. I am mainly looking for more recent criticisms, although some older ones are included as well.
There are at least three classes of critiques of the social sciences:
- As an endeavor at all
- In their current form
- Criticism within a particular discipline - one branch against another.