The Quantitative Revolution

Revolutions break eggs to make omelets. Omelets are tasty. Broken eggs are messy. Hence, the essential problem of revolutions.

Of all the controversies I have learned about since entering the University of Nebraska, none has fascinated me so much as the Quantitative Revolution. The Quantitative Revolution, or QR, has radically transformed social research in academia. It is as much of a revolt against all that has gone before as Marxism. QR is a rejection of all that would interest a bright adolescent in social research. It is also, I think, all that can save social research from Marxism.

To understand this war, think about politics, or psychology, or geography, or any of those subjects that interested you when you read an Encyclopedia as a kid. Think of the Plato and Machiavelli pondering Politics, Freud and Adler plumbing the subconscious, and explorers and theorists deciding what is a Sea and what is a Bay. This is social research as it existed from antiquity to sometime in the 20th century.

Now throw that out. Instead measure things, and note what varies with what.

That’s the Quantitative Revolution. It’s very powerful, because it’s actually science: It provides a way of showing you when you are wrong, and a methodical way for supporting your intuition when it is right. Is man, for instance, truly a political animal? Well, measure where his nature comes from (neatly dividing it into biological influences, non-biological influences shared with one’s siblings, and non-biological influences not shared with one’s siblings) among a diverse enough population, regress it, and suddenly you get answers. More than that, you get repeatable answers which allow you move on to something else without throwing your old work away.

Yet QR is a profoundly dull revolution. All the great questions become matters for vertical thinkers and technicians. An academic career in the era of the QR essentially is the process of limiting your imagination to one or two good tools, and measuring variation with those tools. The sort of people who enjoy being accountants, I think, love life under the Quantitative Revolutionaries.

Yet the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and QR targets its wrath most consistently against the Marxists, dead-ender followers of a 19th century Revolution that have burrowed themselves deep into academia. Marxists have spent a century developing a self-consistent toolbox of rhetoric that has dispatched non-Marxists in nearly every academic field. Every place the Quantitative Revolution has not taken and held, it seems, is territory in which Marxists rapidly make their home.

I despise, I think, the Quantitative Revolution for depriving academia of the qualitative give-and-take that is so common in the better parts of the blogosphere. But I delight in the ease at which the Quantitative Revolution unseats the Marxists every time it gains a foothold, overwhelming the Marxist immune system through dull questions of covariation and how-do-you-know-if-you-are-wrong?