May 16

Daniel Kaufman – What Is Social Science?

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Weekly conversations on race, inequality, and more, with Glenn Loury. Bi-weekly appearances by John McWhorter.
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This week’s episode is a throwback to 2015, when Daniel Kaufman, professor of philosophy at Missouri State University, editor of the online magazine the Electric Agora, and (at that time) a mainstay on and, invited me onto his show Sophia. I stumbled across this video again last month, and I think it remains an illuminating discussion that addresses some fundamental questions about economics and the social sciences.

We begin by discussing the “science” part of the social sciences. I explain that we economists tend not to philosophize about our discipline as much as other social scientists. But many major economic thinkers (think Keynes, Marx, and others) elaborate concepts that do ask fundamental questions about the nature of economics. To call a discipline a “science” implies that its findings are testable and replicable, that its insights are able to predict future conditions from present conditions. Does economics do that? I argue that it does. Of course, since much economic data is drawn from real-world behavior rather than controlled experiments, it can be difficult to isolate variables in a way that would satisfy, say, a physicist. This is because markets exist within particular cultures and under particular social arrangements that are not themselves purely economic in nature. And cultural values are going to affect, at least to some extent, how people behave within markets. The idea that people will try to maximize utility in a rational way is important to economics, but of course we know that humans often behave in ways that seem irrational. How does economics incorporate irrationality into its methodology? And finally, Dan and I were speaking at a time when the (still ongoing) replication crisis was all over the news. Is replication as seemingly dire a problem in economics as it is in psychology?

Dan’s training in philosophy helps him to ask some really deep questions here, and I think you can tell I relished the opportunity to answer them. Love to know what you think about this “classic” episode.

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5:44 How scientific are the social sciences?

11:20 Glenn defends the reliability of economic predictions

29:47 The strengths and weaknesses of “natural experiments”

36:48 How much does culture affect economic behavior?

50:06 New insights from behavioral economics

58:12 Dan: We trust the social sciences too much

Links and Readings

Dan’s website, the Electric Agora

The Electric Agora on YouTube

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’a book, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives