The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford
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The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford

Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Let me take you back
to the autumn of 2008, when the global financial system
almost collapsed. Back in March, Bear Stearns
had gone bankrupt, but people weren’t really sure then
whether that was a one-off event, or whether it was foretelling
something worse. Then in July, IndyMac,
a huge mortgage bank, went under, and markets started to get nervous. By the middle of September,
they were in full panic. On September 15th,
Lehman Brothers collapsed. The very next day, AIG had to be bailed out
for 85 billion dollars. Then on September 29th,
the Dow fell 778 points. And so began a multiyear global depression
that we’re only now getting out of. It sure is a good thing we have
15,000 economists in the United States. (Laughter) You might have thought they could have
let us know this was coming. You might have thought they could have given us some policies
for when it did arrive. But they didn’t. Before the crisis, the greatest economists
in the world didn’t see it. When the crisis came,
they bickered about what to do. Today, years later, they’re still debating
the fundamental causes. No wonder we don’t have good policies
in place for avoiding the next crisis. This represents a great failure
of social science. The social sciences are not working. Sociology, economics,
political science, history; we need good answers
from these disciplines. Imagine what we could accomplish if we were actually good
at social science. Imagine the crises we could avoid. Imagine the lives we could save. Today I want to talk to you
about some new ideas for fixing the foundations
of social science, for rebuilding them from the ground up. At the heart of this talk
is one simple point: There’s a certain kind of question that we’re not really asking
in the social sciences, something that we’re largely overlooking. It’s what I’ll call
a “What is it?” question. These are questions we rarely ask,
and when we do bother to ask them, we tend to get the answers wrong. The reason is the social sciences
are largely in the Dark Ages, they’re relying on old assumptions
and dogmas that we need to overturn. So let me start by distinguishing
two kinds of questions in the sciences: “What is it?” questions
and “How does it work?” questions. These questions are fairly familiar
in the physical sciences or natural sciences, like physics
and chemistry and biology. “What is it?” questions are questions
about structure or composition. Like, suppose you have a molecule of DNA. What is the structure of it?
What are it’s building blocks? What is it? “How does it work?” questions are questions about
mechanisms or processes. Like, imagine that you have
a strand of DNA and some enzymes out of which
a protein is being built. What’s the process
by which that’s happening? What’s the sequence of causes and effects? Scientists spend some of their time
answering the first kind of question and some of their time answering
the second kind of question. And importantly, those two questions
interact with one another. If you want to do a good job answering
“How does it work?” questions, it’s a really good idea to do a good job
answering “What is it?” questions as well. The thing about the social sciences is we spend a lot of time
on “How does it work?” questions. But “What is it?” questions? We don’t really do that. What is money? What is a company?
What is an institution? What’s a social group? What are credit cards,
financial instruments, contracts? These are questions we really
don’t ask in social sciences. Here’s an interesting comparison: I had a research associate
look at two of the top journals. One in the natural sciences
and one in the social sciences, Nature and the American Economic Review. We looked at the 400 or so articles
that came out over the last year and coded them in terms of what kind
of questions they were addressing. Here are the results: The blue bars represent Nature,
and as you can see, about 16 per cent
of the articles in Nature are addressing purely
“What is it?” questions. Then another 12 per cent
are addressing a mix of questions. The American Economic Review
is very different. Out of the 242 articles we looked at, only two of them are addressing
purely “What is it?” questions. And only 13 were even addressing a mix. These are things we’re not really
paying attention to. Why do the natural sciences spend
so much time addressing these questions? Let me tell you a story about what happens if you get your answers
to “What is it?” questions wrong. This is a story from biology,
from the 1860s. But as you’ll see, the things
that were going wrong then are remarkably similar to the things that are going wrong
in the social sciences today. Here’s a guy named Rudolf Virchow. Back in the 19th century,
he was a very prominent biologist arguing for the cell theory of organisms. Now it may be hard to believe,
but at the time, there were a lot of debates about
what organisms like us are made of. Some people thought that we’re made
of some stuff called protoplasm, whatever that is, some people thought
that we’re made of fluids with a vital life force
flowing up and down us. Virchow argued for
the cell theory of organisms, and here are a couple
of the principles he put forward. One is: All organisms are made
exclusively out of cells. A second is: Cells are the functional
and structural units of organisms. Cell theory really is very good. It’s much better
than life-force fluid theory. (Laughter) But the problem is it’s not quite true. Think about a body. There are lots of cells in the body, but lots of parts of the body
are non-cellular as well. Think, for an instance, about the eye. There are lots of cells in the retina
or cells in the optic nerve, but most of the eye is non-cellular;
the cornea has almost no cells, the lens. Most of the eye, is the vitreous humor
and that also has almost no cells. The eye is an amazing structural
and functional device, and yet it’s not made out of cells. The same is true for lots
of other parts of the body as well. The bones, 15 per cent of the body. The hair, the teeth,
all the fluids in the body. Virchow got the answer
to the “What is it?” question about the body wrong. It was too simple. It was too uniform. One more point about this: Suppose you want to use Virchow’s answer
to “What is it?” questions to then answer
“How does it work?” questions. For instance, suppose you want
to construct a simulation, and in the simulation of the body
as a whole, you only simulate the cells. And you ignore, overlook,
all the non-cellular stuff. This will not be a good
simulation of the body. You might simulate a few things well. You might simulate the muscles well,
or you might simulate the organs well. But as a simulation of the body
as a whole, it will be terrible. You can probably predict
what’s going to happen. (Laughter) With a bad answer
to “What is it?” questions, we don’t have a prayer
of giving a good answer to “How does it work?” questions. There’s an assumption that’s deeply built
into the social sciences today, which is that the social world
is built exclusively out of people. What’s an economy? It’s a bunch of people
interacting with one another. What’s a company? It’s a bunch of people
interacting with one another. Let me give you three examples of cutting-edge social science
to illustrate this: Here’s a picture I took from a recent book
on simulating corporations. As you can see, what they’ve done
in terms of organizing a simulation is to take people and then to cluster them
into hierarchies or groups. If you followed their instructions
for simulating a corporation, you are going to simulate the people. Nothing more. Here’s an example
of a field of social science that’s getting an enormous amount
of attention: social network theory. In this diagram, you can see
that a society as a whole is represented as a graph, with people at the nodes
and relations between people as the lines between the nodes. The society as a whole is represented
by people and their relationships, nothing more. Or general equilibrium
theory in economics. This is the workhorse of economic theory, it’s what macro-economists
spend much of their time doing. These models are slightly more complicated
in terms of their building blocks than the ones I just showed you, but not much more,
they’re still very simple. They start with a group of people,
or what they call “A cohort of agents,” then they add just
a few more building blocks. They add some resources, they add some firms
which are basically understood as “black boxes that take inputs
and transform them into outputs,” and then they sometimes will add
a government or some bonds. A little more complicated
but still very simple. I was talking to an economist
the other day, and he was like: “Sure, society is built out of people, and these are the building blocks
of our model, but what else is there? Are you suggesting that there’s some sort
of dark matter in the social world that we’re not really representing? Some invisible stuff we can’t see?” Now I’ve gotten this reaction quite a bit, but whenever I get it,
I’m always kind of puzzled because there is no dark matter. All we need to do is look around us. Look around you right now. Sure you see some people,
but there’s a lot more than people. Or look in your company.
Or look in your university. Or in your living room, or your car, or look at your wallet,
at the bills and cards in your wallet. Each one of these things is built
on a complex hierarchy of parts. To see this vividly, think about the building blocks
of an economy. Or maybe that’s too complicated. Think about the building blocks
of a single company. Or less complicated, think about the building blocks
of the company’s balance sheet. Or even one account. Or even simpler,
think about my bank account. As you can see from this ATM receipt,
I have a $78 balance in my bank account. (Laughter) This is what you get for going to academia
instead of Silicon Valley. (Laughter) So what are the building blocks of that? Well partly, it’s actions
by me, a person – my deposits and my withdrawals, maybe interacting
with tellers and machines – but there’s a lot more
behind it than just that. For instance, in order for me
to have that bank balance, Bank of America needs to be
a depository institution, it has to be able to take deposits. And that depends on an enormous
hierarchy of complicated stuff. It partly depends on their employees, but it also depends
on things like licenses, which have lots of complicated
terms and conditions, and those conditions
have their own dependencies. Then there are things like bank capital, and relationships with other banks
like the Federal Reserve, which then has it’s own dependencies. And there’s more. For instance, the Bank of America
needs to be solvent. For it to be solvent, depends
on it’s capital and on its loan portfolio, and deposits and other stuff. Or if it’s not solvent, then there’s the FDIC,
which has its own dependencies. The point is not the details
of this particular example. The point is that what looks like
a very simple fact is actually built out of a complicated
and heterogeneous set of building blocks. And that is just one guy’s bank account. Think about a company. Think about an economy. The idea that these things are built
exclusively out of people is crazy. What do we do when we encounter
something like the financial crisis? We want to understand what happened,
we want to understand how it works. But to understand that, we need to understand
the mechanisms behind the parts of that. And in order to understand that, we need to understand
what those parts are. This is something
we have to take seriously, at least as seriously as we take DNA
in the natural sciences. It’s not that social scientists are blind. They can look around them and see
that the world is a complicated place. But what they’re doing is they think that society is made
exclusively out of people, and so it interacts
with the other parts of the world. So you come up with this clean separation
of society and people here, and resources here
and firms here, and so on. But if you just take one glance
at this complicated hierarchy, it’s clear that
couldn’t possibly be right. There is no way of pulling out
and separating the people in our models. Our approach to the social world overall
is too centered on people; it’s too people-centric,
too anthropocentric. 500 years ago, Copernicus argued against
anthropocentrism, about the solar system. Before Copernicus, astronomers
couldn’t imagine a universe where people weren’t right at the center. Those astronomers, of course,
were proven wrong. We are part of the universe, but we are not at the center
of the universe. Amazingly, 500 years later, the social sciences are still relying
on a similar kind of assumption. But this is not the way it has to be. We don’t have to labor under the dogmas
of an earlier generation. All we need to do is take
the “What is it?” questions even half as seriously in social science
as we do in the natural sciences, and we have the potential
to make some real progress. Here’s some steps we can take. First: We have to recognize the problem. There’s no way that we are going
to improve this stuff until we see that “What is it?” questions are important
and that we are not addressing them well. Also, critical, is to go beyond
just thinking about psychology. Lots of people are thinking about
how to fix the social sciences, but by large the way they are doing it is by improving our models
of the human psyche. For instance, the biggest trend, by far,
in the social sciences today is taking account of the fact
that people are not always rational. Sometimes we are irrational. Now, this is something
we’ve known for a very long time, but people are starting to systematically
incorporate it into their models. This is a good thing. It’s a good thing for people to do. But we have to understand that even if we got
the human psyche perfect, we’re still only addressing
a small fraction of the social world. Second: We need to experiment. We need to try things out
in a variety of places, this is not a task for big science
to try to do a moonshot. It’s a task for a lot of us
to experiment and build on things. We’re very much at the beginning of understanding the nature
of the social world. A lot of different people and disciplines
need to start contributing to it. And thirdly: We need to build out
our intellectual infrastructure, and we need to build out
our modelling infrastructure. I come from philosophy, and in recent years,
we’ve made some huge strides in cracking some of these problems
about the social world. But still, we’re only just starting. And of course, philosophy’s just one place
where this needs to happen. It needs to happen in the social sciences. Modelling infrastructure needs to be built
in computer science and in mathematics, and examples need to be drawn
from business and from the humanities. Let me conclude by saying
that this is not something that we are going to solve
in a day or a week or a month. It’s an ongoing project in social science,
just as it is in natural science. But even if we can make
small strides, little by little, it can have an enormous impact. The stakes are huge
in the social sciences. And if we can start making improvements, we just might find that after years
and years and years of effort, that we can finally draw
on the social sciences to solve some of the most
pressing problems of our time. Thank you. (Applause)

53 thoughts on “The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford

  1. Epstein is completely and totally uninformed about modern economics.  I know most of us have pretty low expectations for TED talks now, but this is the worst I have seen by far.  There are so many different complaints I could make about almost every minute of the video that I scarcely know where to begin.  

    To pick a central one – there is some nebulous concern about the failure of economists to model various uninteresting aspects of banking regulation (which are part of a broader social ontology beyond 'just people'), like the fact that a bank must have permission to operate.  

    Know this about modeling: you can model many things, but each one will add complexity – for each feature you add, you are making it harder to understand and solve the model.  You need to be sure you are getting some analytical mileage in your results out of what you are adding.  What is adding the fact that the bank needs some signature to operate going to get me when I solve the model?  (Hint: probably nothing!)   There are numerous (and I mean literally hundreds) of papers about banking and banking regulation regarding capital requirements (another complaint on that slide).  He would have you believe that we don't care about such things.  This is totally false.  Indeed, banking regulation and financial intermediation have been an extremely active area of research, certainly since the crisis but also before it.   

    Please do not think that the ridiculous caricature presented here has even the slightest thing to do with economics as it is actually practiced in university departments.  Do not feel that you have understood an important failure of economics!  (There are surely many of those, none enumerated here.)  

    Normal philosophers of science (e.g., in physics or biology) generally need to have at least MA's in the science itself so they don't sound like complete ignoramuses when they talk about it.  From what I have seen that requirement is generally not extended to philosophers of economics, which is a shame.  Well-done philosophy of economics could make useful contributions to economics, as well-done philosophy of physics can do for physics.  But I have no sense from this that the speaker has that capacity.

  2. Legal scholars and practitioners of the new institutional economics devote substantial amounts of attention to precisely the kinds of questions that Professor Epstein claims are being overlooked by social scientists.

  3. This presentation makes a bold claim about the precarious nature of the foundation of most current social science: it is based far too much on individual human behaviors. In economics and sociology, the dominant approach is, and has been, an individualistic one — what is proudly hailed as methodological individualism. Sometimes we see this as rational actor theory. We see this in many examples, like the Prisoners' Dilemma. 

    Brian Epstein cautions that descriptions of social behavior and models of the mechanisms behind them fail if we do not consider institutions, and other social facts and social objects (like his banking example) , when modeling social processes. Individualism is not enough, even if we get the cognitive psychology right. I recommend strongly a book that Epstein published a few months ago: The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. You will find the arguments compelling and the examples (the Supreme Court, public agencies, law) well-written and clear. I am assigning it to my university students this fall!

  4. Understanding the human psyche "perfect" actually requires an examination of the systemic dependencies that structure our reality. I basically agree with Epstein, but his notion of "anthropocentric" seems to be too narrow to me; he seems to think of rational actor theory (homo oeconomicus) and similar concepts from behaviourism and positivism, but psychology and psychoanalysis are way beyond this conception of psyche.

  5. Not a whole lot of detail there, so it's hard to judge what's really going on. It is important to continually improve social science, but I think the assumption that we are not benefiting from them is wrong. Everything from election polling, to what kinds of teachers are better, to the effects of social policy, all these good jobs are being done without the benefit of a well thought out social ontology. There are very good books out there trying to solve these questions, thinking of what Searle is doing, and also the lectures of Robert Sapolsky. Dennett at your own tufts has also been doing some social philosophy on the sub-personal level. But, that is not the main thrust I realize. Most people at my local  university are much more interested in improving public health, than researching the ontology of receipts.

    By the way, I think your very quick analysis of receipts there leaves something to be desired. For a relevant analysis, think of "interaction points", of the moment to moment actions. So, you need the physical bank terminal, the electronic systems and so on; but then to, you'd have to explain the computers programs instantiations of economic praxis and policy, which will not be identical to the law. Then there is the human side, with all the causal pathways to explore there, including; ideas about money, financial situation, hormone levels, demands made of him, wants and so on.  The problem with such deep analyses is that; they are very rarely useful. What a person with 40$ probably needs from a sociologist is probably the knowledge of; where are the key institutions that will help me get a better job, therapy, family counseling, which party should I vote for, and perhaps, should I keep the friends I have; what will be the effect of exercise and so on.

  6. When I came across the title of Epstein's lecture, I must admit that as someone coming from the social sciences, I was let down initially but as I came to watch this video, I have come to the recognition that Epstein does make a valid point in as far as the social sciences are concerned. I mean where were the social sciences when the world experienced an economic meltdown in the late 2000s? I believe that Epstein's talk is a wake up call to us social scientists to make our knowledge relevant. I am a huge advocate of this approach. I feel that the social sciences have remained dormant in as application is concerned. The change starts with us.

  7. Why are the social sciences failing? First of all we aren't, and second, you try making substantial policy changes whilst being constrained by working within a pre-existing hegemonic governmental system.

  8. First of all, the biological facts were almost all wrong. The cornea is made of cells and bones are made of cells (medical student here). Different tissues have a different cellular density, but that doesn't negate that cells ARE the structural and functional units, because the substances around the cells keeping them together are synthesized and secreted BY those cells. "Made by cells" doesn't mean "it only has cells", and anybody who understands it that way simply shouldn't be talking about biology, much less using it as an example.

    Aside from the fact that the example was wrong, it seems even the point trying to be made by that example is also wrong. Are we re-inventing the wheel? Seriously, is it being claimed here that in social sciences no one has ever asked these questions? How do the individuals think or how do their interactions work? The problem is, figuring out how brains work is hard, so while neuroscience gets to learn more about that, we're left studying the descriptive side. The more we learn about the brain, the more we will be answering the ontological questions. Otherwise, we would just be making things up. Additionally, social sciences clash with politics. The idea that "nobody saw the crisis coming" is absolutely ridiculous. Of course, many did. I can see how someone might think that, if they only get their economic news from their TV.

    This is a very over-simplified description, quite naive both about natural and about social sciences. What did we learn? That social sciences are hard and complex and we should try harder to understand them. Was there someone who didn't know that?

  9. That was terribly poor and speaks more to why some have a distaste for philosophy than it does of the shortcomings of the social sciences. He just took twenty minutes to explain that the social sciences are hard. What a shocker.

    One of the major flaws in his line of reasoning is that the ontology questions that he focuses on are also a function of the data being fed from the physical sciences. You can't complain that the social sciences are not trying to define the entities, without recognizing that the most central of things (the person and the brain of the person and how brains function in groups of brains) are not yet understood sufficiently in biology and neuroscience. Without a better understanding of the person, which is central to the social sciences, we will not adequately understand nor be able to predict how persons function in any given system.

    This was a facile argument which simply misrepresents the scientific disciplines and complexity involved. It also did not include even a basic understanding of ideas like emergence and convergence and the gaps in the physical sciences which are crucial inputs to the social sciences. Very disappointing.

  10. One answer: "Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification ; the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit." (Popper, 1982).

  11. What is it?
    What does it do?
    How does it work?
    Obscured insecurities and insensitive acts of interference in interpersonal interactions.

    What is it?
    What does it do?
    How does it work?

  12. How can a study of human society not be anthropocentric?A society is nothing more than people interacting with each other on certain terms (usually laid out as a social contract). You can look at this as a simple binary. In the absense of those terms (or laws), we'd be living in what is the 'state of nature'. Because there are so many people in the world, these interactions manifest in very complicated ways- what the analogy of his bank statement presents. However, it was careless of him to pick up this complexity and use it to refute the idea that the same could solely be a product of mere human interactions- just because the former is so complicated and the latter easier to grasp. Its the equivalent of saying the forces of natural selection, genetic drift and mutation are too simple by themselves to be able to explain the complexity of life that we see around us.

  13. Social sciences or not or any other science, people divide the discussion between the economists that were supposed to know what was going on pre-2008 and after 2008 crisis and the economists, scientist or whatever they are, that are supposed to figure out how to fix this problem now.

    They never mention people that came from random fields of life and backgrounds and yet were capable of seeing for example the financial crises coming and made a lot of money because of it. Now you can talk all day about the failures in science and the hopes in science, but you can also sit and think a bit how did the other part of people that nobody talks about know, prosper and win over this unexpected catastrophe of financial crisis ? what science did they belong to ? what did they comprehend that we in the academic world didn't ?

  14. As a retired social science teacher and sociology/anthropology professor, the points Epstein makes have been really thought-provoking for me…I believe that we, as a society, often expect the sciences to provide "the Real Answer"–we believe, especially, that the natural sciences do provide "real answers" based on established FACTS and, of course, the social sciences do not. Yet facts(data) are statistical creations by humans, and, are not part of the natural REALITY of the world. The little book "How to Lie with Statistics," written quite a while ago, is still very relevant.
    We are limited by the fact that we are human, and can only know things as humans. There is much more going on in our Earth, and the universe.

  15. Legitimation Code Theory?
    Actor-Network Theory?
    Marx's and Engels' materialist conception of history? Material conditions?
    What about node attributes in social network analysis? It's not necessarily 'just people'.

  16. IN the first place it was the natural science that dissected complex systems into manageable cogs, ignoring variables that doesn't seem to fit into a construct, which leads to many social malady. To go further redefining social science by going even deeper into the principles of natural science might exacerbate the problem. For a start answering "What is it" in social phenomena cannot be free from individual worldviews. Hence a clear answer is not possible unless the one seeking the answer is clear which worldview they want to use in answering it.

  17. I have finally found my calling, i have been on the hunt for a career path for my school. So i was thinking of which work environment i was going to choose, and i wanted to enter a world that NEEDED my point of view needed my thoughts my feelings my mind. And bingo! I found it !

  18. Brian is very confused as to "social science." I guess he forgot to ask, What is it? and How does it work? He thinks its all economics! Ugh! Then he said its too much about people!!?? OMFG! Dude, its all about people. Next, its a lot of different points of view. For political science learn about David Easton as Interpretivist

  19. Epstein clearly needs a better understanding of "what social science is" before he can make any claims as to whether or not "social science works." This is one big straw man argument that equates all of social science with (a small handful of) micro-level theories of interpersonal interaction (e.g. rational choice theory, network theory).

  20. This guy is deluded! If you think that social science is becoming irrelevant you should ask yourself what happens when you switch on the light? Think about the social structure behind it.

  21. america needs a documentary on "targeted individuals", technology, mental health, and biomedical science are leading these "targets" to americas big business=MEDICATION. this is a social engineering project gone bad. The Whole is greater than the SUM of all Parts,,, political agenda= prop.36/AB109, pushing federal money through in the form of Residential treatment centers and Rehabs that use medi-Cal ,, The "targeted individuals" are being monitored,, the malicious use of the technologies of the cochlear implant with its microprocessors and computer software that can manipulate sound through frequencies and communicates with the microelectrode arrays illegally implanted. They are hooked up to a computer and software that can read and verbalize thoughts, thats why "targets" talk and laugh at themselves. This is whats makes them 51/50 or what society would call 51/50 ,, its designed to do that , and keep them paranoid, Now with medi-Cal they create discourse ,, now they can qualify for mass produced MEDICATION and they satisfy political agenda for the courts,, They homeless are "targeted individuals" ,, they also one day heard "voices" and are like WTF!!! ,,, this is DataMining- dAtaFarming ,, research and development for who ever is behind the supercomputer,, This could be judges-ExpErtwitnesses-city prosecutors-attorney generals- local task forces that use technology "MEMS sensors' to get a reactions out of the "target" at home or in Public to satisfy quotas,,. $$$,, votes,, this social engineering project has gone bad,,, Be the first to expose how electronic devices are re-rooted and connected through infrared ,, nuclear communication,, nano technology,, satellites's "handshake",, The digital industries are growing with this modern day genocide and creation of a "spiritual awakening",, social workers see this everyday and it is only a matter of time before it happens to them,, surveillance, brain to computer technologies are responsible,, there is more,,, much much more ,,,, ex. insurance-jails-institutions-software- currency,, there is more ,,,,,

  22. "None of the greatest economists in the world saw it coming." Really? Nearly every economist of the Austrian School tradition saw it coming and stated it publicly. YouTube and the internet are wonderful things for finding these things out.

    If you define "greatest" in really limited terms that only fit with your presuppositions, then it makes it easier to craft a narrative, I guess.

  23. my 2 cents worth. The stuff he said although valid but the title is a attention grabbing clickbait. The stuff he said (what is it vs how is it) is nothing new. Good social scientist grapple with such issues all the time, and examine it in depth before launching into their research.

    Lastly, people have wrong expectations that social scientist are prophets. They are not allowed to make mistake. They are supposed to predict every problem which humanity's way. Ultimately, social scientist are not gods. They are also human beings. Like all human beings, biases and flawed data may interfere with analysis. Furthermore, social science is a branch of knowledge fragmented by many schools of thoughts. The first and foremost way to fix social science is to recognize that people who study it are neither prophets nor gods.

  24. I have an MA in economics and an MBA so this is a topic of interest to me. Noting that, there is merit in the argument that thousands of economists failed to see the 2008 financial crisis. As such, that does speak to weaknesses of economics as a discipline. And in effect, other social sciences. There are limits to what social scientists can and can't do. Social scientists can't do experiments like physicists and, in general, create rules or laws. The late physicist Richard Feynman made that criticism. There is video on YouTube with Feynman speaking on this. However, here are some weaknesses I see in Epstein' s arguments:

    1. He took one year of journal articles for his study to debunk the social sciences. Not impressed as a sample size.
    2. Economists and historians have written great literature on various topics that are insightful. But business and political leaders aren't necessarily listening or care. People read less today.
    3. The speaker almost imagines a world where business and political leaders are sitting at their desks waiting for social scientists to save them. Sorry. That isn't the real world.
    4. Even if these improvements were made in the social sciences, greed, fear and power will always impact leadership choices. That means the improvements he advocates may not help since they may contradict these motives. These forces always impact decisions in institutions.
    5. His talk gets very convoluted and excessively abstract. That leaves me skeptical. To invoke physicist Richard Feynman, solutions should be simple.
    6. You still have to sell your ideas. Even if his improvements are made in these disciplines, doesn't mean business, non-profit and political leaders can or will buy in.

  25. I love this talk. Thank you Brian: I will be drawing on your papers to apply some what-is-it questions to environmental philosophy. Love your work!

  26. I think that Dr. Epstein really missed the point of his argument. He insists that the social sciences need to be decentralized from the human perspective, but the fact of the matter is that human life is generated through the social (referring to Mead), and to neglect this is to miss the point of the social sciences altogether. Additionally, while his "bank account" example does demonstrate the complexity of our interactions, it ignores that fact that these are included in the discussion of what it means to remove people from the system.

  27. it's already irrelevant. social science is not an emperical science. you're practically a part of a cult.

  28. The problem with social sciences is that they have been infiltrated by Marxists who want to hijack the social sciences to give legitimacy to their manipulative propaganda.

  29. 500 years ago, Copernicus was wrong. Astronomers before him are correct in not imagining a universe where people are right in the center. And in my Bachelor of Applied Science Information Technology program I do not want to take the Humanities/Social Science course.

  30. We didn't ask what is money? that fella didn't read Marx and ALL the sociologists that talk about money like f e Giddens… wtf

  31. It's hard to understand what he's getting at, but I think he's making a relevant point. I think what he's saying is that … things are more complicated than they seem. I don't know I was following him at times and other times he lost me. Philosophers concern themselves with the "substance" of concepts, so to speak. So I believe what he's getting at is that our conceptualizations of many things are overly simplistic. We think the driving forces in the economy are people, when really the driving forces of people are extremely complicated in and of itself, therefore the driving forces of the economy can't be reduced to people. It's actually everything that goes into people. I think he's speaking about a need for a better integration of social sciences.

    Like when he said if you have that diagram of a business with the hierarchy of people, if you followed that in order to understand how a business works, all you have is people standing around at various business establishments. That's not a business. For some reason that's the considered the basics, the "definition" or concept of a company. A CEO with a board and a cfo, regional managers, employees, etc. And the driving forces are the relationships between these people. Not the layers beneath all those individual parts. Because after all his point was how we're failing at "what is it" questions, and as a result our "how it works" questions are suffering as well.

  32. Social sciences are not hard sciences. 1 plus 1 don't necessarily give you 2. Humans are more complex

  33. Its pretty simple.. 1st Government in a vote buying scheme in the 90's forcing banks to give loans to people who could not and should not have gotten a loan THEN the inevitable Greed and banks.. they could sell those finical instruments to foreigner investors fast enough.. So basically GREED and GREED it what caused it and NOT G W Bush ,,,

  34. Its called the ebb and flow of our banking system. How could it be a crisis if it happens around every 15 years? high productivity for us also means loads of money in our economy and higher borrowing, at some point it peaks, and people stop taking out loans and spending. With the last crisis, the problem was bad loans, loans that people couldnt afford, and big institutions selling the debt sold to them by the banks. dont know why he is hoping for something more complex than that.

  35. Nothing is going to change until you incorporate bio social sciences. Would be an understatement if i said postmodernist have not made you a laughing stock. …PS Humanities are like the clowns of academia

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