MacIntyre on Social “Science” and Fortuna

FortunaTowards the end of the episode, I brought up MacIntyre's thesis for chapter 8, "The Character of Generalizations in Social Science," that the findings of a science like sociology can't be scientific in the way that those in physics are. Now, laws in physics may be probabilistic, but they are so in a precise way, because you know where the imprecision is coming from or at least can define exactly how it works mathematically.

With generalizations about, say, how revolutions start or of steps to take to improve the economy, there is no such hope, according to MacIntyre. Starting around p. 94 (in the second edition), he lays out systematic sources of unpredictability in human affairs:

1. We can't predict radical innovations.
2. We can't predict our own future choices.
3. There's a "game-theoretic character of social life" (i.e. we're all trying to make ourselves unpredictable to each other)
4. Trivial contingencies can powerfully influence the outcome of great events.

Here's a quote to clarify #3 here from p. 98-99 that I found interesting:

Consider the following familiartype of situation. The management of a major industry are negotiating theterms of the next long-term contraa with the labor union leadership. Representatives of the government are present, not only in an arbitratingand mediating role, but because the government has a particular interest in the industry-its products are crucial for defence, say, or it is an industrywhich powerfully affects the rest of the economy. At first sight it ought to be easy to map this situation in game-theoretic terms: three collective players each with a distinctive interest. But now la us introduce some ofthose features that so often make social reality so messy and untidy in con-trast with the neat examples in the text-books.Some of the union leadership are approaching the time when they aregoing to retire from their posts in the union. If they cannot obtain relatively highly paid jobs with either the employers or the government, theymay have to return to the shop floor. The employers are not only concerned with government in its present public interest capacity; they have a longer-term concern with obtaining a different type of government con-tract. One of the representatives of government is considering running forelected office in a district where the labor vote is crucial. That is to say, in any given social situation it is frequently the case that many different transactions are taking place at one and the same time between membersof the same group. Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one's knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net.

Even when we can identify with some certainty what game is being played, there is another problem. In real life situations, unlike both gamesand the examples in books about game-theory, we often do not start with a determinate set of players and pieces or a determinate area in which the game is to take place. There is-or perhaps used to be-on the market a cardboard and plastic version of the battle of Gettysburg which reproduces with great accuracy the terrain, the chronology and the units involved in that battle. It had this peculiarity, that a moderately good player taking the Confederate side can win. Yet clearly no player of war games is likely tobe as intelligent at generalship as Lee was, and he lost. Why? The answer of course is that the player knows from the outset what Lee did not-what the time scale of the preliminary stages of the battle must be, preciselywhat units are going to get involved, what the limits to the terrain are onwhich the battle is to be fought. And all this entails that the game does not reproduce Lee's situation. For Lee did not and could not know that it was the Battle of Gettysburg—an episode on which a determinate shapewas conferred only retrospectively by its outcome-which was about to be fought. Failure to realize this affects the predictive power of many computer simulations which seek to transfer analyses of past determinate situations to the prediction of future indeterminate ones.

MacIntyre's solution is that we should consider the generalizations of social science not scientific at all, but useful like Machiavelli's maxims. I quote p. 92-93:

Machiavelli takes a very different view of the relationship between explanation and prediction from that taken by the Enlightenment... To explain is on [the Enlightenment] view to invoke a law-like generalization retrospectively; to predict is to invoke a similar generalization prospectively. For this tradition the diminution of predictive failure is the mark of progress in science; and those social scientists who have espoused it must face the fact that if they are right at some point an unpredicted war or revolution will become as disgraceful for a political scientist, an unpredicted change in the rate in inflation as disgraceful for an economist, as would an unpredicted eclipse for anastronomer. That this has not occurred yet has itself to be explained within this tradition and explanations have not been lacking: the human sciencesare still young sciences, it is said-but clearly falsely. They are in fact as old as the natural sciences. Or it is said that the natural sciences attract the most able individuals in modern culture and the social sciences only those not able enough to do natural science... Yet perhaps explanations are not needed, for perhaps the failure that the dominant tradition tries to explain is like King Charles II's dead fish. Charles II once invited the members of the Royal Society to ex-plain to him why a dead fish weighs more than the same fish alive; a number of subtle explanations were offered to him. He then pointed out that it does not.

Wherein does Machiavelli differ from the Enlightenment tradition? Above all in his concept of Fortuna. Machiavelli certainly believed as passionately as any thinker of the Enlightenment that our investigations should issue in generalizations which may furnish maxims for enlightened practice. But he also believed that no matter how good a stock of generalizations one amassed and no matter how well one reformulated them, the factor of Fortuna was ineliminable from human life... Given the best possible stock of generalizations, we may on the day be defeated by an unpredicted and unpredictable counter-example-and yet still see no way to improve upon our generalizations and still have no reason to abandon them or even to reformulate them.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Vasili says

    I mostly agree with MacIntyre, though one hardly needs to see this as a failure. There is, of course, a strong tradition in social sciences arising from counter-enlightenment thought and German romanticism that makes an important distinction between what Dilthey called Naturwisschenschaften (natural sciences that explain) and Geisteswissenschaften (interpretative social sciences that understand). The gap between these two approaches and data they deal with frustrates attempts reduce social life into a mechanistic model. This is precisely why generalizing from biology can be so dangerous when the results are applied to social life (see sociobiology).

    • dmf says

      sadly not a very strong active tradition within the social sciences (or at least one that has kept up with post-modern critiques like Stephen Turner’s The Social Theory of Practices ), which as their name suggests still imagine that they can trade in literal minded generalizations (I would say reifications) like societies/cultures/norms and fields like social psychology or “symbolic” anthropology, we started to discuss this in relation to the various structuralisms which still haunt us, at some point in the course of the blog maybe we could get into the history of statistical analysis and other model building, and the role of “experts” in democracies.

      • Vasili says

        I’d say the tradition is very strong, perhaps more in (Boasian) anthropology that relies on qualitative data than in sociology where quantitative data plays larger part. I cannot say what the reaction to Turner has been, I haven’t read him, but I can assure that anthropology at least has been very successful at generating its own post-modern critique of reified and totalizing concepts like culture, tradition, and society since the eighties. Combined with the political critique of representation and post-colonial theory, the effect has at worst been epistemologically paralyzing (see for example Peter Metcalf’s They Lie, We Lie: Getting on with Anthropology). At times there seems to be an oscillation between methodological individualism and what Sahlins calls Levianathology, where an autonomous cultural superorganic completely subsumes individual subjectivities (sounds like a horror movie). These kind of debates are well-tread ground in anthropology, and sensible responses have been formulated. Btw. I am not at all scared of the ghosts of structuralism (see for example Sahlins’ Culture and Practice: Selected Essays or Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History and Culture and Vice Versa).

        • dmf says

          sadly there is lots of pseudo-science thriving in the name of qualitative studies still making all kinds of causal and generalizable claims, as far as I know the few standouts like Paul Rabinow and Tim Ingold are largely pushed to the margins of interdisciplinary studies, fortunately there is some excellent micro-sociology being done by the old Actor-Network-Theory crowd with John Law ,Bruno Latour and co. still plugging away but they are hardly in the center of things.
          I’m putting my bet for future productivity on the “enactivists” but very few of them around in the academy:

          • Vasili says

            From where I stand neither Rabinow nor Ingold are particularly marginalized.
            Who in your estimation are the most egregious pseudo-scientists?

          • says

            Along similar lines to enactivism, I think those taking up Garfinkel’s project of ethnomethodology have something to offer as well. In fact, I think Actor-Network-Theory draws some of its basic insights from this project. But it seems that the disciplines that take language use as their focus, linguistic anthropology, discursive psychology, and areas of micro-sociology (micro-ethnography) to name a few have more of a foothold to push off of in my view. Latour and Woolgar’s “Laboratory Life” is a good example.

          • dmf says

            Rabinow has been quite explicit about his marginalization in the field and Ingold is hardly a name well recognized in most schools, at least in the US, let alone at the heart of the institutionalized field, but then studying primarily qualities is also still not the main stay of most anthro education and research, so on a sociological note I would say that these are fringes folks/ideas/practices. As for the largely oxymoronic name of social-sciences that’s a problem well beyond a few individuals, I would say pick up any textbook in cultural anthro (sociology, social psyhcology,etc) and turn to the names index.
            to the degree that language is understood as a practice I would agree with your assessment but the old Romantic days of hermeneutics are better left behind.


  2. Dave says

    If a Millionaire’s daughter is getting married he might sell a large portion of his stocks to get cash to pay for the wedding.

    The Economist will report that stocks went down because a war broke out or barrels of oil are sparse. Then the technologies we create: TV, radio and the internet; spread the false observations of the Economists to an unknowing population. And everyone thinks they “scientifically” understand what the economy is doing. It’s absurd.

    When in fact the human element (A Dad loves his daughter) made the stock decline. This kind of stuff goes on all the time. The Social Sciences are creating a mess of things.

    The same could be said for taking Vitamins and doing Yoga. Both of those things are not scientifically proven.

    I bet most people would think they increase health. The reality is that “wealthy” people have expendable income and time to become attracted to these things. So it appears that the Vitamin eating Yoga practitioners live healthier because of the Yoga and Vitamins, when actually it was there wealth that made them live longer.

    Even the so called “real” sciences can go astray. Take for example the connection with smoking and cancer. People might have “something” wrong in their kidneys that makes them attracted to nicotine and smoking; that “something” also gives birth to cancer in them twenty years later. A simple coincidence or fortuna.

    The Scientific methods lead you to believe that people who smoke get cancer so it must be the cause. When it might be just a coincidence. If we would use other methods we might come up with a solution. Strictly using one method, Science, is itself unscientific. People should be more open to randomness and chance.

    The cancer example is just an interesting idea. I wouldn’t personally start smoking. LOL.

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