Monthly Archive for December, 2009

Epistemology in the social sciences (economics included)

I’m not sure how I came across it, but Daniel Little has a post summarising a 2006 article by Gabriel Abend:  “Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and U.S. Quests for Truth“.  Daniel writes:

Abend attempts to take the measure of a particularly profound form of difference that might be postulated within the domain of world sociology: the idea that different national traditions of sociology may embody different epistemological frameworks that make their results genuinely incommensurable.


Consider this tabulation of results on the question of the role of evidence and theory taken by the two sets of articles:


Here is a striking tabulation of epistemic differences between the two samples:

Abend believes that these basic epistemological differences between U.S. and Mexican sociology imply a fundamental incommensurability of results:

To consider the epistemological thesis, let us pose the following thought experiment. Suppose a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p.  Carnap’s or Popper’s epistemology would have the empirical world arbitrate between these two theoretical claims. But, as we have seen, sociologists in Mexico and the United States hold different stances regarding what a theory should be, what an explanation should look like, what rules of inference and standards of proof should be stipulated, what role evidence should play, and so on. The empirical world could only adjudicate the dispute if an agreement on these epistemological presuppositions could be reached (and there are good reasons to expect that in such a situation neither side would be willing to give up its epistemology). Furthermore, it seems to me that my thought experiment to some degree misses the point. For it imagines a situation in which a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p, failing to realize that that would only be possible if the problem were articulated in similar terms. However, we have seen that Mexican and U.S. sociologies also differ in how problems are articulated—rather than p and not-p, one should probably speak of p and q.  I believe that Mexican and U.S. sociologies are perceptually and semantically incommensurable as well. (27)

Though Abend’s analysis is comparative, I find his analysis of the epistemological assumptions underlying the U.S. cases to be highly insightful all by itself.  In just a few pages he captures what seem to me to be the core epistemological assumptions of the conduct of sociological research in the U.S.  These include:

  • the assumption of “general regular reality” (the assumption that social phenomena are “really” governed by underlying regularities)
  • deductivism
  • epistemic objectivity
  • a preference for quantification and abstract vocabulary
  • separation of fact and value; value neutrality

There is a clear (?) parallel dispute in the study of economics as well, made all the more complicated by the allegations leveled at economics as a discipline as a result of the global financial crisis.

Nassim Taleb takes bat, ball; goes home

The author of The Black Swan doesn’t approve of the looming reappointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the US Federal Reserve.  Writing in the Huffington Post, he says:

What I am seeing and hearing on the news — the reappointment of Bernanke — is too hard for me to bear. I cannot believe that we, in the 21st century, can accept living in such a society. I am not blaming Bernanke (he doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work or that the tools he uses are not empirical); it is the Senators appointing him who are totally irresponsible — as if we promoted every doctor who caused malpractice. The world has never, never been as fragile. Economics make[sic] homeopath and alternative healers look empirical and scientific.

No news, no press, no Davos, no suit-and-tie fraudsters, no fools. I need to withdraw as immediately as possible into the Platonic quiet of my library, work on my next book, find solace in science and philosophy, and mull the next step. I will also structure trades with my Universa friends to bet on the next mistake by Bernanke, Summers, and Geithner. I will only (briefly) emerge from my hiatus when the publishers force me to do so upon the publication of the paperback edition of The Black Swan.


That’s quite a god complex Taleb’s got going on there (“he doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work”).