Social Science as Sorcery

There are four chief obstacles to grasping truth, which hinder every man, however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear title to knowledge; namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority, influence of custom, popular prejudice, and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by an ostentatious display of our knowledge.

— Roger Bacon cited in Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

[W]hat we have to deal with in the study of society and culture, indicates its purely intellectual difficulties, and shows how much easier are physics, chemistry or even biology. Even this, however, is not the whole story: for imagine how sorry would be the plight of the natural scientist if the objects of his inquiry were in a habit of reacting to what he says about them: if the substances could read or hear what the chemist writes or says about them, and were likely to jump out of their containers and burn him if they did not like what they saw on the blackboard or in his notebook. And imagine the difficulty of testing the validity of chemical formulae if, by repeating them long enough or persuasively enough, the chemist could induce the substances to behave in accordance with them — with the danger, however, that they might decide to spite him by doing exactly the opposite. Under such circumstances our chemist would not only have a hard time trying to discover firm regularities in his objects’ behaviour but would have to be very guarded in what he said lest the substances take offense and attack him. His task would be even more hopeless if the chemicals could see through his tactics, organize themselves to guard their secrets, and devise counter-measures to his maneouvres — which would be parallel to what the student of human affairs has to face. (Andreski 1973, 20-21, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

There is no reason to deny the existence of phenomena known to us only through introspection; and a number of philosophers have pointed out the impossibility of carrying out Carnap’s programme (accepted as a dogma by the behaviourists) of translating all statements about mental states into what he calls the physicalist language. I would go even further and agrue that physics itself cannot be expressed in the physicalist langauge alone because it is an empirical science only insofar as it includes an assertion that its theories are corroborated by the evidence of the senses; and we can assign no meaning to the latter term without entailing a concept of self…. Thus you cannot give an account of the evidential foundations of physics without hearing and uttering ‘I’. And what kind of meaning can you attach to this word without using the knowledge obtained through introspection; and without postulating the existence of other minds within which processes are taking place which are similar to those which you alone can observe? (Andreski 1973, 21-22, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

At this point let me say a few words about the often debated question whether any of the social sciences is a ‘real’ science. As often happens with such debates the arguments for as well as against omit the obvious truth that the answer to this question will depend on what we mean by science. If we mean exact science like physics or chemistry, then neither economics nor psychology nor sociology nor any other kind of research into human conduct is a science [, which obviously includes economics]. But if we agree to affix this honorific label to any kind of systematic study which aims at providing careful descriptions, substantiated explanations and factually supported generalizations, then we can say that the above mentioned branches of learning are sciences — although the propriety of this appellation will depend on whether we decide on the basis of aspirations or actual performance, and whether we look at the average or at the highest achievements. (Andreski 1973, 22-23, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Though formidable enough, the methodological difficulties appear trivial in comparison with the fundamental obstacles to the development of an exact science of soceity which puts it on an entirely differnt plane from the natural sciences: namely the fact that human beings react to what is said about them. More than that of his colleagues in the natural sciences, the position of an ‘expert’ in the study of human behaviour resembles that of a sorcerer who can make the crops come up or the rain fall by uttering an incantation. And because the facts with which he deals are seldom veifiable, his customers are able to demand to be told what they like to hear, and will punish the court physicians for failing to cure them. Moreover, as people want to achieve their ends by influencing others, they will always try to cajole, bully or bribe the witch-doctor into using his powers for their benefit and uttering the needed incantation … or at least telling them something pleasing. And why should he resist threats and tempations when in his specialty it is so difficult to prove or disprove anything, that he can with impunity indulge his fancy, pander to his listeners’ loves and hates or even peddle conscious lies. His dilemma, however, stems from the difficulty of retracing his steps; because very soon he passes the point of no return after which it becomes too painful to confess that he has been taking advantage of the public’s gullibility. So, to allay his gnawing doubts, anxieties and guilt, he is compelled to take the line of least resistance by spinning more and more intricate webs of fiction and falsehood, while paying ever more ardent lip-service to the ideas of objectivity and the pursuit of truth. (Andreski 1973, 24, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

So to examine the validity of the claim that these are highly useful branches of knowledge, let us ask what their contribution to mankind’s welfare is supposed to be. To judge by the cues from training courses and textbooks, the practical usefulness of psychology consists of helping people to find their niche in society, to adapt themselves to it painlessly, and to dwell therein contentedly and in harmony with their companions. [We can ask the same question about economics.] So, we should find that in countries, regions, institutions or sectors where services or psychologists [and economists] are widely used, families are more enduring, bonds between spouses, siblings, parents and children stronger and warmer, relations between colleagues more harmonious, the treatment of recipients of aid better, vandals, criminals and drug addicts fewer, than in places or groups which do not avail themselves of the psychologists’ skills. On this basis we could infer that the blessed country of harmony and peace is of course the United States; and that it ought to have been becoming more and more so during the last quarter of the century in step with the growth in numbers of sociologists, psychologists [, economists] and political scientists. (Andreski 1973, 26, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

The self-fulfilling prophecy constitutes only one (and fairly narrow) manifestation of the much more general disposition of human beings to be influenced by what is said about them and their environment. On the individual plane everybody knows that one can make a person discontented by deploring the circumstances under which he lives, encourage his endeavour by praise, or discourage it by sarcasm…. [I]f we show that the idea that ‘honesty is the best policy’ is groundless we remove an important incentive to honesty. (Andreski 1973, 31, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Even such purely academic theories as interpretations of human nature have profound practical consequences if disseminated widely enough. If we impress upon people that science has discovered that human beings are motivated only by the desire for material advantage, they will tend to live up to this expectation, and we shall have undermined their readiness to moved by impersonal ideals. By propagating the opposite view we might succeed in producing a larger number of idealists, but also help cynical exploiters to find easy victims. This specific issue, incidentally, is of immense actual importance, because it seems that the moral disorientation and fanatic nihilism which afflict modern youth have been stimulated by the popular brands of sociology and psychology [and economics] with their bias for overlooking the more inspiring achievements and focusing on the dismal average or even the subnormal. When, fraudulently basking in the glory of the exact sciences, the psychologists [, theoretical economists, etc.,] refuse to study anything but the most mechanical forms of behavior often so mechanical that even rats have no chance to show their higher faculties and then present their mostly trivial findings as the true picture of the human mind, they prompt people to regard themselves and others as automata, devoid of responsibility or worth, which can hardly remain without effect upon the tenor of social life. (Andreski 1973, 33-34, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Abstrusiveness need not impair a doctrine’s aptness for inducing or fortifying certain attitudes, as it may in fact help to inspire awe and obedience by ‘blinding people with science’. (Andreski 1973, 35)

If the rank and file come to be convinced that the leaders are crooks, cowards or fools, their actions will differ radically from what would be, were they convinced that the leaders are dedicated men of great courage and intelligence. Conversely, the leaders’ behaviour will to some extent depend on the popular image of their office, which will determine whether the latter carries with it the dignity which they are expected to live up to, or whether they will have no reputation to preserve. (Andreski 1973, 36, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

The difficulty of verifying assertions about human relations gives wide scope to ulterior motives, and provides immunity for the purveyors of false information. (Andreski 1973, 38, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

If you listen to the practitioners of social and economic research talking informally, you will easily find that not only are they very well aware of the aforementioned [social status and economic gain] pressures, but also that they fully take them into account in making plans and arrangements about what to study, to write, or to say. This, however, happens on the everyday bread-and-butter level, while neither their pronouncements ex cathedra nor their publications ever mention that these pressures might make a difference to the trustworthiness of the results of social research, and to the prospects of its ever attaining the level of objectivity and reliability of the natural sciences. (Andreski 1973, 39, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

To summarize: the propensity of human objects of inquiry to react to what is said about them creates three kinds of obstacles to the development of the social sciences. The first is of a methodological nature and consists of the difficulties surrounding the task of verifying propositions which can influence the happenings which they purport merely to describe or analyse. The second kind of impediment stems from the presures upon the direction of the inquiry and the dissemination of its results, motivated firstly by the awareness that what is said might influence what will happen; and secondly by the desire … to hear what pleases them. The disarray wrought by the operation of the two aforementioned factors prduces the third kind of impairment in the shape of ample opportunities for getting away with falsehoods and crypto-propaganda. (Andreski 1973, 39-40, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Once an activity becomes a profession — this is, a way of making a living — the dedicated amateurs tend to fall into second place, greatly outnumbered by the practitioners guided primarily (if not soley) by the normal motives of the market place — which commonly boil down to the desire to get the most at the least cost to themselves. In other words, as soon as it becomes apparent that there is money in it, the saleability of goods rather than their intrinsic excellence becomes the dominant criterion. (Andreski 1973, 43, in Social Sciences as Sorcery) [i.e., literature-only economics; see Payson 2017.]

If everything is wonderfully dovetailed and adjusted, then we should leave things alone. More insidiously than nineteenth century organicism, functionalism propagates a conservative ideology in the name of science; while, for those things its practitioners do not like, they have the aforementioned epithet ‘dysfunctional’, which enables them to insinuate a condemnation without openly saying so, and to enlist the authority of science for their ideologies or personal preferences. For if somebody says that something is good or bad, he might be asked: for what?, or for whom?, or why? So he might be obliged to take off the mask of objective omniscience and to reveal, firstly, his values and, secondly, the reasons for his assumptions about the likely consequences of various arrangements or courses of action; whereas by using ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ instead of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, a functionalist can hide behind a façade of objectivity and invoke the magic of science to back his crypto-propagandist insinuations. (Andreski 1973, 57-58, Social Science as Sorcery)

Anreski’s letter to editor

The article to which I referred in my letter supplied one or more of the innumerable instances of that ever-popular kind of explanation which consists of a tautological rephrasing which tells us nothing that we did not understand before. An explanation which Moliere ridiculed three hundred years ago in one of his plays, where one of the characters answers the question about why opium makes people sleep by saying that it is because of its soporific power. In historiography and social sciences this kind of explanation crops up again and again. Thus, to take an example of a great scholar who luckily did not confine himself to this, Werner Sombart attributed the development of capitalism to the spread of ‘the spirit of capitalism’, without telling us how we could find out that this spirit was spreading except by observing activities which add up to the process known as the development of capitalism. (Andreski 1973, 68, in Social Science as Sorcery)

The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and the danger of ‘sticking one’s neck out’ or ‘putting one’s foot in it’. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly. Actually, the relationship between the character of a jargon-mongerer and the amount of his verbiage can be expressed in the formula below, which can be applied in the following manner. The first step is to assign intuitively estimated scores for an author’s ambition, designated by A, and to knowledge, designated by K (which must always be greater then 0, as nobody knows exactly nothing). A must also be positive because, if somebody’s literary ambition is nil, they he writes nothing, and there is nothing to apply our equation to. V stands for verbose jargon. Our equation is

Verbosity Formula

Why I? Because when the knowledge matches the ambition there is no verbiage. When knowledge exceeds the ambition V becomes negative; and negative verbiage amounts to conciseness. However, since there is a limit to conciseness, V can never become less than I; whereas there is not limit to verbiage, and so V increases indefinitely as ambition grows, while knowledge vanishes. (Andreski 1973, 82-83, Social Science as Sorcery)

Our formula cannot, of cours be treated as exact until measurable indices are devised for the variables, and then checked against empirical data. I do believe, however, that it is approximately true, and I invite readers to try it on the authors they read as well as on their colleagues, teachers or students. Its predictive and explanatory power is roughly the same as that of most theorems of mathematical economics. The many different kinds of people, ranging from an undergraduate who is trying to scrape through a dissertation without having learned anything, to a scholar with a fairly extensive knowledge but devoured by a craving for greatness. (Andreski 1973, 83, Social Science as Sorcery)

If you happen to be a student, you can apply the same test to your teachers who claim that what they are teaching you rests upon incontrovertible scientific foundations. See what they know about the natural sciences and mathematics and their philosophical foundations. Naturally, you cannot expect them to have a specialist knowledge of these fields; but if they are completely ignorant of these things, do not take seriously grandiloquent claims of the ultra-scientific character of their teachings. Furthermore, do not be impressed unduly by titles or positions. (Andreski 1973, 86, in Social Science as Sorcery)

As has often been said, measurement is the beginning of science (if we mean thereby exact science) because our ability to predict the behaviour of a phenomenon must remain very restricted until we can measure it. It does not follow, however, that no knowledge whatsoever is possible without measurement, nor that such knowledge cannot be worth having — which is precisely the conclusion which … many sociologists [and economists] have adopted in the mistaken belief that only thereby can they maintain the scientific character of their discipline. But the true scientific spirit consists of trying to obtain the nearest approximation to truth which is possible under the circumstances, and it is puerile to demand either perfect exactitude or nothing. those who refuse to deal with important and interesting problems simply because the relevant factors cannot be measured, condemn the social sciences to sterility, because we cannot get very far with the study of measurable variables if these depend on, and are closely interwoven with, immensurable factors of whose nature and operation we know nothing. A weakness of this kind diminishes the usefulness of economic theory … because it excludes from its universe of discourse immensurable but causally crucial factors … such as the balance of political power … or simply relegating them to the category of those things which are treated as ‘being equal’. (Andreski 1973, 123, in Social Science as Sorcery)

To substantiate their claims, the advocates of an exclusive concentration on quantification ought to demonstrate either that [political] corruption can be measured, or that it is a factor of no significance. The fist, … cannot be done, while to maintain that corrupt practices play no important part in social causation one must be either a hypocrite or a starry-eyed dreamer. (Andreski 1973, 124, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Even if the diagnosis offered on the foregoing pages is only partially correct, we have no grounds for expecting any great leap forward in the study of society which would replicate the rapid advances of the natural sciences. True, it is quite easy to conceive remedies against many of the ills stemming from the purely intellectual difficulties, which would work in a more perfect world. we could, for instance, insist that the economists should openly state the limitations and empirical reliability of their models, be prepared to take cultural (or, if you like, psychological and sociological [and the humanities, and literature, and religious studies, etc.]) factors into account, and desist from proffering advice on the basis of one-sided and coarsely materialistic statistics. We could demand that the psychologists should acquire some general culture, and acquaint themselves with the subtler products of the human mind before setting themselves up as experts on human nature. We could compel the sociologists to learn about history and philosophy, and the historians about the social sciences. Above all, we need a kind of intellectual puritanism which would regard money as a clear (even necessary) evil, and any manipulation of it as essentially polluting. Not that any great advantage would accrue if social scientists imitated monks and took vows of poverty; but, nonetheless, no steady advance will be possible without an ethical code which would forcefully condemn mercenary trimming as intellectual prostitution, and counter the natural human tendency not only to flatter and obey, but even to genuinely to adore those who control money or wield coercive power. The snag is that it is difficult to visualize who could enforce such requirements, and how. The difficulty here is the same as with finding the best form of government: we can readily agree with Plato that the best system would be that where the wisest and kindest rule, but nobody has so far been able to discover a practicable method for brining about such a state of affairs. (Andreski 1973, 231-232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Some years before the First World War, a Parisian periodical asked some of the most prominent French figures in the various branches of what we would now call social sciences, and which were known at the time in France as les sciences morales, about what they regarded as the most essential method in their field. While other respondents sent back learned methodological disquisitions, Georges Sorel replied in one word: honesty. This lapidary answer has lost none of its relevance; but it is difficult to find any reasons for hoping that we shall ever have a society where absolute frankness would be the best policy for self-advancement. (Andreski 1973, 231-232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Despite these irremovable obstacles, my own view on the prospects for the social sciences might be described as a desperate optimism. I say desperate because I do not see how our civilization could survive without important advances in our understanding of man and society. Having invented so many wonderous gadgets [e.g., nuclear weapons] which can be employed for its benefit only through the utmost use of reason, mankind has long ago passed the point of no return in this respect. No matter how valuable might be many ingredients of the old religious and moral traditions, the problem of how to reconcile human physical and spiritual needs with the environment created by technology, and how to assure mankind’s very survival, will not be solved by going back to the good old ways or dogmas. Consequently, I have no doubt that if the social sciences fall into a total and irremediable decadence, this will be a part of the general collapse of civilization, likely to be followed by an extinction of our species. No matter therefore how heavy are the odds against us, we should persist in trying to do our best, because the alternative is resignation in the face of an imminent catastrophe. (Andreski 1973, 232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Provided some freedom of expression remains, we have reason to hope that no branch of learning will come to a complete standstill even when its main trunk succumbs to decay; because even during the ages of deepest ignorance and superstition, indomitable spirits with a natural bent for rational inquiry continued to crop up and add a brick or two to edifice of knowledge. What made their cerebrations more effective in the long run than the efforts of the vastly more numerous priests and mystagogues was the fact that the products of rational thought are cumulative, whereas mystic visions, fads, stunts and phantasmagorias not only add up to nothing, but even cancel one another out and merely sway minds to and fro, hither and thither. (Andreski 1973, 232-233, in Social Science as Sorcery)

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