Tag Archives: Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

The Place of Rational Choice

After criticizing Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s antiscientific and dangerous attack on Rational Choice Theory, I then turned around and attacked Rational Choice Theory itself for not being a scientific theory (though it can be a useful tool).

The lesson, I guess, is that simply having the right enemies does not make you right yourself.

My critiqued of both Jackson and Rational Choice attracted the attention of Phil Arena, both regarding antiscience and, more interestingly, regarding Rational Choice. Phil was kind enough to provide with me two articles, “Does Preference Cycling Invalidate “Rational Choice Theory”?,” and “Rat Choice Apologetics II” in which he had previously attempted to defend Rational Choice Theory from similar attacks.

Phil’s posts emphasize that Rational Choice is not a scientific theory.

The first post, on preference cycling, is an extended “just-so” defense of Rational Choice theorizing against laboratory falsification. Phil writes:

My big point here is that those who seek to justify a wholesale rejection of “rational choice theory” by observing that some laboratory experiments have found that some individuals exhibit behavior that appears to reflect cyclical preferences are overplaying their hand.

But Phil’s bigger points seems to be that any laboratory finding does not falsify Rational Choice, because some collection of mathematical formulas can be modified post-hoc to account for the behavior observed. This speeks to the cleverness of the Rational Choice theorists — like Freudians or Jungians, any observation of evidence of their model.

Rational Choice is like Interviewing, because just as no experimental result can falsify Rational Choice, no experimental result can falsify the feelings of an interview subject. Few who are planning a complex intervention would do so without interviews of one sort or another, and it may be that Rational Choice is likewise useful. But just as the interview is a tool, not a scientific theory, Rational Choice is a tool, not a scientific theory.

In the follow-up Post, Phil goes farther to protect not just Rational Choice Theory, but any implementation of a rational choice theory, from falsification:

Amongst formal theorists, there is significant disagreement about how to evaluate models in general. On one end of the spectrum, you have the strict interpretation of EITM, as espoused here and seems to be Morton’s preferred view here, though she does discuss other views. This view holds that formal models are important for ensuring logical consistency of theoretical arguments, but the value of these arguments is ultimately judged empirically. On the other, you have Primo and Clarke, who argue that there are many different roles we could ask our models to serve, some of which do not require any kind of empirical assessment. My own views, as I’ve indicated before, are closer to those of Primo and Clarke.

This is not scientifically serious. But Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory, so of course it doesn’t have to be. The purpose of science is to improve, predict, or control behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are working), but the purpose of tools such as interviews, case study, and rational choice is to inspire scientists to come up with scientific theories that can make control, predict, and improve behavior.

Phil’s a clear writer, so his point is written clearly. And he’s write that science has certain requirements — such as predictive validity — that are as hard to get away from as Rational Choice Theory’s unfalsifiable assumptions:

When we evaluate arguments empirically, we make a huge, non-falsifiable assumption that the future will be like the past. Otherwise, it would be meaningless to claim to be testing the claim that X causes Y by observing historical patterns of association between X and Y. On a certain level, we all understand this. That is why folks worry about omitted variable bias with observational studies and external validity with experiments. But I’m not sure how many people really appreciate the depth of the problem.

But of course the difference is that the scientific requirement for predictive validity enables it to fulfill its mission of predicting, improving, and controlling behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are functioning). Rational Choice Theory rejects the scientific need to predict, improve, or control behavior, because it is a “formal model” which are “logical consistency” and thus do not need “empirical assessment.” That is, Rational Choice is a form of “qualitative” (or better, investigatory) analysis, where mathematical equation balancing takes the place of interviews or subjective impressions.

Rational Choice has a place in science, like any investigatory or qualitative method (introspection, interviews, case studies, etc): to generate hypotheses. Rational Choice should be a part of science to the extent its scientifically useful. But like interviews, case studies, and the such, we can’t generalize from rational choice theorizing, but of course we can generalize from the empirical findings such theorizing might lead us to.

Against Rational Choice

I recently wrote two posts, “Four Types of Anti-Science” and “Academia, Science, and Anti-Science,” which took Patrick Thaddeus Jackson to task for his post, “The Society of Individuals.” I even criticized Phil Arena for not being sufficiently critical of Jackon’s writing in his post, “Should We Keep Hidden the Way People Behave When their Actions are Hidden?

But here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of “Rational Choice.” It’s a useful tool, but Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory.

For emphasis: Rational Choice Theory itself is not a scientific theory — it’s a tautology that’s used for creating theories, but it’s based on a basically absurd premise that is as protected from refutation as the worst nonsense from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

The core foundation of Rational Choice Theory is that individuals have a discoverable complete transitive preference schedule. This is a ridiculous assumption. It’s also unfalsifiable in terms of the theory that generated it.

  • Discoverable means it is possible for researchers to uncover this. A list of desired possibilities, which occurs entirely in the mind and doesn’t consistently direct action, is irrelevant to Rational Choice Theory.
  • Complete means it contains all possible actions and choices. Some of these may be unknown at the time that a decision is made, but once it is known, it does not change the order of preferences.
  • Transitive means the order is consistent, that there are no loops or self-referential cycles. For instance, if you would rather have money than a job, and would rather be comfortable than have money, therefore you would rather be comfortable than have a job.
  • Preference Schedule means that this is the list that controls actions. It’s important to note that Rational Choice Theory is not a psychological theory. There is no need, whatsoever, for Rational Choice to explain the “reasons” for choices, or the subjective experience of the chooser.

It is the transitive requirement which prevents Rational Choice Theory from being a scientific theory. For instance, in the example above, even if we could discover that the subject who prefers a job to comfort, then the Rational Choice Theorist would say there must really be some other elements we hadn’t considered — say a desire to be useful and a desire not to be worthless, which are the real preferences.

Rational Choice Theory is the No True Scotsman fallacy writ large.

All that said, Rational Choice is a method for generating theories. Some are falsified. Others are not and are found to be useful. Like Evolutionary Psychology with its mythical “Era of Evolutionary Adaptation,” Rational Choice’s discoverable complete transitive preference schedule is a tool that enables scientists to create scientific theories about the world, rather than a scientific theory in itself.

Dr. Jackson’s attack on Rational Choice Theory was anti-science, because it privileged his idiosyncratic idealistic prejudices against the scientific method.

He would have been far more useful if he had merely stated it was not a scientific theory at all.

Academia, Science, and Anti-Science

Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s anti-scientific critique of rational choice theory made me think more of Academia, and its relationship to Science.

Academia and Science are not the same thing. Indeed, for a long time most U.S. government science funding was channeled thru the Department of Agriculture. Many of the great scientific advancements in the United States were likewise made outside the typical academic environment, such as Bell Labs, General Electric, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo Program. While academia were involved in these places to varying extent, none of them ran on the basis of academic freedom.

How Academia works is not the only way of how Science works. Science already has too many enemies to be dragged down into the political muck with Academics who themselves attack science in addition to creating political enemies. Academia is already under too much attack — such as from teachers union attempting to harvest profits from the public school system – to stay healthy under the anti-Scientific strain.

The proper role of non-Scientific academics is teaching, service, and research that builds useful things. The digital humanities are an amazing and lucrative example of such useful, non-Scientific work in Academia. Jason Heppler of Stanford University runs an awesome blog on such things, Likewise, the cool Geographic Travels blogs emphasizes the utility of spatial and cultural geography. There’s plenty of room for such activity in Academia, too.

But that space is threatened by the anti-scientists — especially elite anti-scientists — who simultaneously attack Science and also generate political enemies. Dr. Jackson’s post titled “The Society of Individuals,” for instance, is an attack on Rational Choice research programs while also attacking politically relevant philosophers for being sexist and morally repugnant.

Science in the Academy is too precious for those who attack Science and the foundations of the Academy. It is a tragedy such parasitic rhetoric is found in the system. It is a waste of resources all around.

A further tragedy is that when non-scientific academics engage in tangential political debates, the (natural) political reaction can be ineffective, counterproductive, and chaotic. Dr. Jackson’s piece is surely an example of the sort of research that Senator Coburn hoped to put a stop to by taking away National Science Foundation support for political science.” But the NSF supports actual scientific work, so the consequences of the defunding are to weaken the Academy, weaken Science, but previously strengthen the voices of those anti-scientific talking heads who might otherwise be drowned out by scientific Academics.

Over at gnxp, Razib Khan has surged that anti-science cultural anthropology “be extirpated from the academy.” More generally, anti-scientists of all types should be too. But there’s no easy or obvious way to do this without risking the Academic Freedom that anti-scientists use to attack science

In conclusion, anti-science should be extirpated from the academy. But I have no idea of how this should be done.

The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto

This morning I read an article by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon, titled “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory.” This piece originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Internaionl Studies Quartlerly.

I like when people agree with me, so when I saw my words echoed across time (it’s as if Jackson and Nexon read my post, built a time machine, and told their former selves what a great idea they read on tdaxp). Yesterday, I said it was riduclous to describe the International Relations cliques of “Realism,” “Liberalism,” and such as paradigms. I wrote:

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

As Jackson and Nexon write:

The terminology of ‘‘paradigms’’ and ‘‘research programmes’’ produces a num-ber of deleterious effects in the field. It implies that we need to appeal to criteria of the kind found in MSRP in order to adjudicate disputes that require no such procedures. In order to do so, we spend a great deal of time specifying the ‘‘boundaries’’ of putative research programmes and, in effect, unfairly and misleadingly holding scholars accountable for the status of theories they often view as rivals to their own.

Perhaps the most well-known instance of this kind of boundary-demarcation occurs in the debates surrounding ‘‘realism’’ in international relations theory. The proliferation of countless lists of the ‘‘core commitments’’ of a realist ‘‘paradigm’’—by adherents and critics alike—shifts the focus of scholarship away from any actual investigation of whether these commitments give us meaningful leverage on the phenomenal world, and instead promotes endless border skirmishes about who is and is not a realist (Legro and Moravcsik 1999), whether predictions of balancing are central to the ‘‘realist paradigm’’ (Vasquez 1998:261–65), and so forth. Such debates and demarcations not only distract us from the actual study of world politics, but also harm disputes over international relations theory by solidifying stances that ought to remain open to debate and discussion.

So I enjoyed Jackson’s and Nexon’s takedown of the so-called “paradigms” in International Relations.

But they don’t go far enough.

Their piece ends with an appeal to Max Weber (how non-progressive can you get?!?) and an unfalsifiable taxonomy that I won’t go into


A more useful conclusion to the paper would have been to recognize that statistics is the language of theory, the language of modeling. Instead of inviting international relations scholars to chase their own tale and bow to Max Weber and the dead, how much more useful would a positive theory of research programs in International Relations have been? For instance, consider a citation indexing method, such as PageRank [pdf] to determine if they are “clusters” PageRank sets in which certain articles were influential (exemplars?) and others were not. Did Jackson and Nexon really have no one availability to sketch even a proposed methodology for testing their claim?

The answer is probably “no.” My purpose isn’t to pick on Jackson and Nexon, but to point out the weakness of International Relations as a whole. In a related post by Patrick Musgrave, titled “The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses“, the following diagram showing is shown:


Which clearly displays a “humanities ghetto,” that includes political science.


How can this be, if International Relations is the disciplined extraction of meaning from data, which is the same focus as the high-paying, well-employed fields?

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.


In an evocative comment that ties the article and the blog post together, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson states:

I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

The dichotomy that Jackson notes is entirely false. In his own piece, he was not able to express a constructive critical thought about paradigms — the original Nexon and Jackson article is devoid of the model specification or operationalization that would needed to turn his criticisms and taxonomy into something capable of progress. Any competent graduate from the humanities ghetto can read “closely” or write “cogently.” That’s needed is to think usefully, and for this statistical literary is required.