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Political Pseudoscience: The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

Matthew B. Crawford

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The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences
Ian Shapiro
Princeton 2005
232 pp.
$24.95 (cloth)

In The Flight from Reality, Ian Shapiro casts a critical eye upon important trends in the social sciences, political science in particular. He finds the discipline too method-driven, and makes a case for realism -- that is, for letting research questions flow from real problems that present themselves to political actors, rather than from the availability of particular methods. He uses the metaphor of flight to describe a common form of disconnectedness. To fly is to feel a heady sort of freedom and maneuverability, a feeling that may become more absorbing for the flier than whatever is taking place on the ground far below. According to Shapiro, such disengagement has become increasingly characteristic of the human sciences.

His most damning arguments are directed against those disciplines that, following economics, have "modeled themselves on physics -- or at any rate on a stylized version of what is often said to go on in physics." Here we find "a perverse sense of rigor, where the dread of being thought insufficiently scientific spawns a fear of not flying among young scholars." The perversity of this sense of rigor lies in the fact that it is measured not by genuine sensitivity to human experience, but rather by how far one goes in developing a "model" that allows for the display of mathematical prowess.

Such methods generally require fateful simplification. For example, if one assumes that human beings are interested solely in maximizing their own selfish utility, then one can import the quantitative methods of microeconomics into disciplines that concern themselves with realms traditionally regarded as non-economic, such as political science, sociology, and law. This approach goes by the name of "rational choice theory." Of course, many have criticized the unrealistic picture of human beings, indeed of rationality, on which this approach depends. Shapiro's contribution is to argue that, even taken on its own terms, the rational choice approach fails miserably in political science; it has "degenerated into elaborate exercises geared toward saving ... theory from discordant encounters with reality." What it "explains" too often involves merely "stylized facts that turn out on close inspection not to bear much relationship to any political reality." It specifies theories "so vaguely that they turn out to be compatible with all empirical outcomes"; its failures include "scouring the political landscape for confirming illustrations of the preferred theory while ignoring the rest of the data"; even the alleged confirmations often as not depend on "tendentious descriptions of the political world."

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 20-Jun-07



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