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Reinventing our social science

Reinventing our social science
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First Published: Thu, Jan 15 2009. 10 28 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Thu, Jan 15 2009. 10 28 PM IST
To understand the difference between the mind of a scientist and that of a social scientist, it is useful to contrast Newton’s fortuitous discovery of gravity with Frederic Bastiat’s “broken window fallacy”. In the former, an apple fell bang on Newton’s head; in the latter, the social scientist proceeds “from what is seen to what is not seen”.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
A hoodlum hurls a brick at a shop window and breaks it. A glazier approaches the shopkeeper and offers to install a new window. A deal is struck. The window is repaired. Everything is back to new. And so, all the passers-by conclude that the breaking of the window increased economic activity in their little town.
This is what is seen.
Bastiat then takes the discussion into “what is not seen”. In reality, the shopkeeper was saving to buy a new suit. His savings have all been consumed by the cost of the new glass. What is not seen is that the glazier’s gain of business is offset by the tailor’s loss of business. The town has gained nothing. Property has been needlessly destroyed.
So, the destruction of war is not beneficial because it gives a boost to the construction industry. So, government spending does not create employment—because the taxpayer is “what is not seen”. The taxpayer, if he is allowed to keep his money, could generate even more employment by spending or investing it. So, all our UPS manufacturers are not an “industry”: They repair the broken window of an erratic power supply. There is much in society that requires minds that can go beyond what is seen, to uncover hidden, long-term effects. This is social science. It is underdeveloped today.
There are other important differences between the physical sciences and the sciences of society. In physical sciences, we investigate something “out there”—something outside ourselves. Even the anatomist investigates someone else’s body. The scientist also starts from the big picture and then goes into the components. First, there is iron; then, its molecular structure; and then there are the atoms. In social sciences, things are the other way round.
The science of society is based on individualism. We understand society by understanding its elements—individuals such as you and me. Thus, the quest is begun not by understanding others, but by understanding oneself. We engage in introspection. We look inside rather than outside. And we then “look outside from within the consciousness”. A true science of society is based on truths that each individual finds ringing true in his own mind, as thoughts familiar to himself.
The only thing common between all human beings is the human mind, with its uniquely human “logical structure”. The philosopher has to look into his own mind to find the “laws of thought” that he has in common with all other human beings. There is nothing to study “out there”: Everything is inside his own mind. There is also nothing to measure as in the case of physical sciences. Social science is therefore subjectivist and individualist in its methodology. Let us take some basic laws of economics to illustrate this point.
Thus, the great law of demand is a law of thought. We think like that only. As is the parallel law of supply. And also the law of diminishing returns. These basic laws are mistaught today by those who copy the methods and language of physics. The elegant diagram with intersecting curves, all capable of being represented mathematically, is a false science. It is “scientism” and has nothing to do with the idea of a true social science that is based on an understanding of the elements, the individuals and their minds. The true and real social science is based on laws of thought common to all our minds and, unlike physics, these laws of thought require no empirical proof. They are truly a priori because anything else would appear illogical to all of us. Just as 2 + 2 = 4 requires no empirical proof. Using introspection to discover laws of thought is very different from the pseudo-scientific nature of current academic teaching. And the reason is simple: government control over all subject areas in the social sciences.
In India, what is obvious today is that we have got our social science wrong. We have been producing great doctors and engineers, our software engineers are the world’s best, but we are a miserable failure when it comes to social science. Take economics: Our people are wretchedly poor. Take political science: Our politics and democracy are centralized. There is deep-rooted corruption. There is no local self-government. Take law: The courts system is clogged, with the government as the biggest litigant. And take public administration: Ours is a disgrace to the human race.
Do note that in all these areas, it is the government that controls all the teaching. Just as the lawyers control all the teaching of law and the IAS controls all institutes of public administration. In India, it seems the bad news never stops. But I hope my readers will wake up to the fact that choosing the government as universal teacher is a grave error: the state at the commanding heights of education.
A true science of society based on individualism cannot be ideologically acceptable to collectivists. For them, individuals do not matter. All that matters is the collective—the society, the nation—and these are then fused into the party and the leader.
To classical liberals, government is just an organization within society with certain functions. Commanding the heights of academia is not one of them, more so in social sciences, where the government is an interested party. The private sector must step in.
Sauvik Chakraverti is an author and columnist. He blogs at www.sauvik-antidote.blogspot.com. Your comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 15 2009. 10 28 PM IST