Michael Lind, imagining how he would design a university curriculum, thinks we should replace so-called “social sciences” with a “humanistic” approach to subjects such as economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and law:
The difference between the natural sciences and the humanities is the difference between motion and motive. Laws of motion can explain the trajectories of asteroids and atoms. The trajectories of human beings, like those of any animals with some degree of sentience, are explained by motives. Asteroids and atoms go where they have to go. Human beings go where they want to go.
If you want to stimulate the economy, you can cut taxes and hope that individuals will spend the money on consumption. But they may hoard it instead. Such uncertainty does not exist in the case of inanimate nature. If you drop a rock from a tall building, there is no chance that the rock will change its mind and go sideways, or retreat back to the top, instead of hitting the sidewalk.
It’s true that human beings are also subject to natural forces: if, instead of dropping a rock, you drop a hedge-fund manager or a venture capitalist from a tall building, there is equally no chance that he will retreat to his cubicle instead of hitting the sidewalk. But social interactions—interactions between human beings—are not ruled by impersonal forces or laws but reflect the idiosyncrasies of individuals:
All human studies are fundamentally branches of psychology…If you want to understand why Napoleon invaded Russia, you have to put yourself in Napoleon’s place. You have to imagine that you are Napoleon and look at the world from his perspective at the moment of his decision. The skills that this exercise requires of the historian or political scientist are more akin to those of the novelist or dramatist than those of the mathematician or physicist. Hermeneutics — the interpretation of the words and deeds of human beings by other human beings on the basis of a shared human psychology — is the method of all human studies, not the scientific method, which is relevant only for the natural sciences.
It can’t be denied, of course, that human beings behave not simply as autonomous and discrete individuals, but as members of groups (families, tribes, cultures, etc.). Even so, group dynamics remain human dynamics, with all their attendant imprecision and unpredictability:
“Macro effects” can also be explained without the need to posit pseudoscientific things like “social forces” comparable to physical forces like gravity or electricity. Unintended consequences — like depressions that are prolonged when everybody hoards money at the same time, or elections in which the division of the vote among many candidates ends up electing a politician whom most voters don’t want — are still the result of individual decisions, albeit individual decisions that interact in an unforeseen and counterproductive way. In most of these cases, the unintended results must be explained in terms of institutions — economic or electoral — that interact with individual motives in a way that cannot be explained if the institutions are ignored.
It goes without saying that the institutions to which Lind refers are themselves human creations—even the mythical “free market” and its equally mythical “invisible hand”.
When it comes to the social disciplines, Mr. Lind plans to run a tight ship once he becomes Boss of Academia:
In my New University, the worthwhile scholarship found in modern-day economics, political science, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology and other contemporary social sciences will be separated from pseudoscience and incorporated into the new humanist disciplines. The distinction between the reorganized humanities and the traditional natural sciences will be strictly enforced. Any professor who explains anything in domestic politics or international affairs as the result of a Social Force will be summarily dismissed. The same fate will await any natural scientist who attributes motives to inanimate objects — for example, a geologist who explains that a volcano erupted because its long-simmering resentment finally boiled over into public anger.
Pretending that human beings are fully predictable, collectively if not necessarily individually, has always been at the heart of “social science”—because, after all, “real” scientists must verify their hypotheses by means of accurate predictions. As Lind points out, however, human beings can be obstinate, willful, and deliberately contrary, willing sometimes to act irrationally and even self-destructively just out of spite. No natural force or element possesses those characteristics or any shred of temperament; the erupting volcano is not angry and the wind does not shift direction out of a desire to embarrass the meteorologist.
In short, I’m with Michael Lind on this one: “social” and “science” go together about as well as “military” and “intelligence” or “Donald Trump” and “presidential”. Let’s do our best, then, to keep them apart.