Tag Archives: Revolutionary Science

The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategy

The Servants of Strategy

The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.

Why We Do What We Do

The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.


The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.


The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.


A Division of Labor

These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.

Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.


Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.


Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…

I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:

1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?

These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.

What You Do

It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.

Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boy Network

On Facebook, Daniel Nexon pointed me to this post by Steve Saideman, titled “Lamenting The Loss of the Light, The Ebbing of Grand Theory and The Decline of Old Boy Networks.” Saideman’s post itself is a commentary on Stephen Walt‘s and John Mearsheimer‘s ridiculous article, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR,” which will soon appear in the European Journal of International Relations.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s article is absurd on many levels. But I mention it for how well it reflects my post, “Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — When It Sucks to Be Young.”

In that post, I mention that it is horrible for your career to be young in a science with loose exemplars — that is, in a field that is “non-paradigmatic” or a “revolutionary science.” The more revolutionary the science, the looser the exemplars, the more “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.

Or in diagrammatic form:


What’s bizarre is that Walt and Mearsheimer agree with me! But this makes them sad. Walt and Mearsheimer would rather political science stay as anti-youth and revolutionary as possible, so that their power and influence could remain strong:

Over time, professions also tend to adopt simple and seemingly objective ways to evaluate members. Instead of relying on “old boy” networks, a professionalized field will use indicators of merit that appear to be impersonal and universal. In the academy, this tendency leads to the use of “objective” criteria—such as citation counts—when making hiring and promotion decisions. In extreme cases, department members and university administrators do not have to read a scholar’s work and form an independent opinion of its quality; they can simply calculate the “h-index” (Hirsch 2005) and make personnel decisions on that basis.22

The second part of the paragraph is literally incoherent, attacking the use of an h-index by arguing it’s a raw count of citation. Walt and Meirsheimer seem unable to do math, and so their inability to understand even basic fractions should not surprise you. What should be surprising is they are so openly defending the power aristocracy that comes from using subjective scores and the “old boys” network!

In fairness to Walt and Meirsheimer, the intellectual poverty they confess through their incoherent ramblings is not entirely their fault. Political science has been so revolutionary, so paradigmatic, so subjective for so long that few may know what a science actually is, or even understand the terms used to describe science.

Consider this earlier passage in Walt and Meirsheimer’s article, in which the “worse than wrong” passage is intended to be uncontroversial:

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

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.

At one point in their article, Walt and Meirsheimer say that “the creation and refinement of theory is the most important activity in [social science].” This is nonsense. The most important activity in science is the prediction, control, and improvement of behavior. Theory can help, diagram can help, interviews can help, process tracing can help. But the paen to old boys network, and the nonsense that Walt and Mearsheimer try to pass off as a scholarly article, certainly doesn’t.

Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — when it sucks to be young

Some people divide the ways we know about our world into two types, Science and Inquiry. Science typically refers to using falsifiable hypotheses to make predictions about the world. Inquiry refers to any deviation or alteration of this method.


For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about fields in which the objective is to control, predict, and improve the behavior of some object (cancer cell, human being, State, whatever). That is the purpose for which the tool of science is most applicable.

Some people further divide Science into two types: Normal Science and Revolutionary Science. These terms from from Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Normal Science, in Thomas Kuhn’s original model, was capable of progress but governed by religious-like “paradigms.” Revolutionary Science, likewise in Kuhn’s outdated model, was capable of freedom but incapable of progress.


I say “original” and “outdated” because no one — except for pretentious modern literature types, and including Kuhn himself — takes that model seriously anymore. While The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a breakthrough at the time (because it implied that science was not completely free, and that not all science would yield progress), the feedback to the model was intense and Kuhn’s model of science rapidly improved.

Instead of two distinct types of Science, Kuhn’s revised models described any scientific field as having “exemplars,” or examples of how the best research is conducted. Some fields (like structural equation modeling, say) have exemplars which are very similar and allow creativity only within that narrow and defined space. These “Normal” fields are capable of rapid progress. Other fields (like political science, say) have exemplars which are so wide and dispirit that researchers can basically do anything they want, and progress is extremely difficult.


One way this matters is that in less-progressive, more scientific, looser-exemplar, fields, “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.


The worse your bargaining position as you start in life, the more you find yourself without experience in an experiential field, the harder everything is. In some antiquated and retrogressive societies, workers with poor negotiating position are even told who they may and may not marry.

Of course, it’s possible for the young to do well in less progressive fields of study, as the old may do well in more progressive fields of study. It’s just that the field is never balanced. Experience pays, and the level of progressive in the field determines how much.