Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: THE BACKWARDNESS OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES - The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry
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CHAPTER VII: THE BACKWARDNESS OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES - Gordon Tullock, The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry 
The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry, ed. and with an Introduction by Charles K. Rowley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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THE BACKWARDNESS OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
One of the more popular superstitions in the social sciences holds that we can say nothing about anything until we can measure it. People holding this belief, of course, cannot believe that the social sciences are less advanced than, say, physics, because there is no way of measuring the advancement of a science. Everyone else, I think, will agree that the social sciences are, as compared with the natural sciences, deficient. The deficiencies are explained in various ways by various authorities, but we can roughly group them into two general classes: those which allege that the subject itself is especially difficult and those which point to various features of the social environment which make research in the social sciences hard. Since this book is about the social organization of science, I intend to confine myself to a discussion of the second category of difficulties. Nevertheless, candor compels me to say that I am skeptical about the importance of the first group. Having mentioned my skepticism, I am almost required to make a brief digression explaining why I feel that the subject matter of the social sciences is not vastly more difficult than that of the natural sciences.
The view that the social sciences are inherently more difficult sometimes seems to be based on nothing more than ignorance of the natural sciences.1 From the bare fact that the physicists are obviously making progress, it is deduced that their problems are relatively easy. Even the slightest acquaintance with the history of modern science will rapidly disabuse the student of this illusion. The natural scientists, particularly the physicists, face today, and have faced before, problems of the most appalling difficulty. The difference is that the physicists frequently solve these terrifying problems. If you consider the situation existing in physics in the first few years of this century or the present situation in particle physics, it is hard to believe that more difficult problems are likely to be met in other fields. The general atmosphere in physics, however, is one of hope, not of despair.
Another reason sometimes given for the alleged greater difficulty of the social sciences is the “impossibility of using the methods developed in the natural sciences.” It is a little hard to see what is meant by “method” in this case. Scientific method can be thought of as the very general philosophic approach of science or it can be thought of as the series of specific techniques used by individual scientists. In the first definition, the methods of the natural sciences amount to little more than simply making the best possible use of man’s mental endowment. Clearly, this is as applicable in the social sciences as in the natural. The specific techniques used by various scientists, on the other hand, are seldom applicable to the social sciences. But while this is true, they are also normally not applicable to other sciences either. A theoretical physicist and an observational biologist have almost nothing in common in terms of specific techniques. This situation exists throughout the natural sciences. The specific methods used in one field are of little use in others. The only general method existing in science is to think hard about the problems and collect data. This can be done in the social sciences.
It is possible that the widespread belief among students of society that the natural scientists have some sort of methodological advantage over them arises quite simply from the fact that English has only one word, “laboratory,” for the area where a scientist does whatever he does. Scientists normally do not like to perform their work in the rain or snow. Consequently, they normally work indoors, and the sheltered area in which they work is called, in English, a laboratory. The only thing which laboratories have in common with each other is that they all provide shelter from the elements. Their internal design and equipment and the work done in them vary as much as those of any other type of building. If you visit, successively, the laboratories of a biologist, an organic chemist, and an experimental physicist, the only things that you will normally find in common in the equipment found therein are things you would also find in all sorts of non-scientific surroundings. Tables and chairs will be found in almost all laboratories, and containers made of glass are common in those which deal with liquids. These containers are usually designed for easy washing and this gives them sort of a family resemblance. Careful investigation of what is actually being done in a number of laboratories (and in the studies of a few theorists) will normally convince the student that there is no specific “scientific method” in use by the natural sciences. Scientists are bound together by a common philosophy, described by Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery,2 and they are also united by a social organization of a common form. The philosophy is applicable to the social sciences as well as to the natural studies, but, as I will explain later, the social organization of the social sciences is somewhat different from that of the natural sciences.
As a final point, it is sometimes contended that the social sciences deal with human beings, that this presents special problems which are met with nowhere else in the sciences, and, QED, the social sciences are more difficult than the natural. I grant the first two points, but not the QED. Every branch of science deals with some special class of phenomena; that is how we divide the general field of human knowledge into branches. In each case the special phenomena under investigation present special problems which are met with nowhere else. The social studies thus resemble the others in that there are special problems, but there has been less progress in solving these special problems.
So much for my digression. If I have not proved that the social sciences are not more difficult than the natural sciences, I think I have, at least, presented some warrant for my skepticism. We will now turn to the differences between the social organization of the natural and the social sciences. The first of the problems of social organization which I will discuss is that of experimentation. It is often said that we cannot experiment with human beings. This, of course, is quite untrue; such experiments3 are regularly performed. There are no particular technical difficulties barring experiments on human beings, and the doctors experiment on them all the time. The fact is that there are inhibitions against some sorts of social experiments on human beings. We do not even really like to perform medical experiments on them, and medical researchers take the most extreme precautions when they do so. Nevertheless, the gains which have been made and are being made in medicine are held to justify the very, very careful use of human research animals.
The absence of objection to medical experiments on human beings is, in part, the result of the tremendous progress which medicine has made in recent years. There is a well-merited tendency to assume that such experiments contribute more to human happiness than their likely cost.4 Even when a new drug kills someone through a very strong allergy reaction, there is little public commotion. That the medical researchers are very skilful, that they are making very great progress, and that there is necessarily some element of danger in introducing new drugs are all well-known facts. Today an experimenter in the social sciences can hardly hope to have such an “understanding” public. On the other hand, an even more important factor in the lack of objection to medical research of this sort can be used to protect much experimentation in the social sciences. Medical experiments are never performed on human beings without the consent of the subject of the experiment.5 Obviously, if the man who is to be experimented on has no objection, there is no great reason for anyone else to protest.
Normally the consent of the subjects of medical experiments is obtained by simply giving them something in return. This fact is rather obscured by the fact that the vast majority of subjects of such experiments are sick people who are told that a new treatment, not yet generally available because it has not yet been thoroughly tested, can be used on them. The patient then weighs the risk against the probability of a more rapid recovery, and his decision will be respected by the doctor. Prisoners in penitentiaries frequently volunteer for more dangerous and inconvenient types of medical experiments. The prisoners, who know that the parole board is likely to let people who have volunteered for the experiments out earlier than those who have not, having the trust in modern medicine which is general in the population, sometimes volunteer for quite dangerous experiments.
Direct payment, although not too common in medical research, is not unheard of. When I was in college, some of my classmates were earning pocket money by taking very small doses of various poisons for the medical school. I never heard what the purpose of the experiment was, but the school was very careful to make certain that all of its subjects were actually paid, since the possibility of serious consequences was obvious. Sometimes medical experiments are performed on simple volunteers, people who are willing to permit experiments to be performed on them for essentially humanitarian motives. Usually experiments in which such people are involved are not particularly dangerous, but sometimes they are extremely so. The experiments which proved the role of the mosquito in transmitting yellow fever were dangerous in the extreme, and the brave men who volunteered suffered heavy casualties.
It seems likely, therefore, that there would be little objection to the use of experimentation techniques in the social sciences if the human beings used in the experiments gave their consent. In the social sciences, however, many experiments would not be possible if the subjects realized that they were involved in an experiment. We would normally be interested in the behavior of human beings in certain situations, and their behavior may differ greatly if the situation is known to be merely part of an experiment. The fact that the participants know they are being observed, and the further fact that the situation is not “real,” may make a very great difference in the behavior of the subjects. The psychologists, confronted with a similar problem, have developed very great abilities in deceiving their experimental subjects.6
A subject of psychological research will usually be told that he is participating in a test or an experiment. The experimenter may, however, be extremely mendacious in describing the experiment.7 The explanation given the subject is frequently simply a “cover” designed to conceal the real experiment from him. Unfortunately, this fact is getting around; experimental subjects may develop a considerable degree of sophistication which will make them systematically distrust the psychological experimenter. But, regardless of the possibility that this type of experimentation may become impossible in the future,8 it clearly would be possible to utilize the same technique in the social sciences. The experimental subjects could be told that they were being tested for A when the experimenter is actually interested in B.
There are numerous areas where experiments could be run with the full knowledge of the subjects and where considerable knowledge could be obtained. There have recently been many experiments in these fields. It is true that initial results have not been very outstanding. In the natural sciences it was quite a while after investigators seriously turned to experimental methods before any really revolutionary results were obtained. The reason is clear. Experiments, necessarily, are set up in terms of hypotheses, theories, and Weltanschauungen. If these initial intellectual presuppositions of the experiments are in a primitive condition as they were in the natural sciences several hundred years ago, then the initial experiments are likely to simply indicate difficulties in the theories being tested, but not to lead to any solution of these difficulties. As time goes by, however, new theories which “explain” various experimental results will be developed; these in turn will be tested by experimentation. This will lead to the invention of new theories, and the eventual outcome, we can legitimately hope, will be a much clearer perception of the social reality.
Let us begin our discussion of the use of experimental methods in the social sciences by an example which, in this rapidly developing field, is almost an antique. Lerner and Laswell9 presented a set of experiments intended to test which of several ways of organizing a five-man group was most “efficient.” The method was to set up a series of such groups, give them problems to solve, and then record the performance of each form of organization. These experiments were, in many ways, models of the use of experimental method in the social sciences; nevertheless, they had serious defects. Here I shall talk only about the defects. These all arise from the fact that the experiments were so extremely limited. They were run for only a rather short time, with the result that about all that could be said in practical terms was that the system in which one man gave orders to the other four was the most efficient. They were unable to present much evidence as to the relative efficiency of the other, less efficient, organizations. Further, the confining of the experiment to a group of five greatly limited the usefulness of the results. It should obviously have been tried also with larger and smaller groups. In particular, it should have been tried with groups large enough that the organizational structure would approximate real organizations in having a stage structure.10
We can go on easily. Problems are not all exactly alike. It might be that one type is particularly suitable to a given type of organization, and another type to another organization. Further, the communications system used in setting up the experiments was capable of distinguishing only between completely free communication of ideas, information, and instruction between the subjects in the experiment or no direct communication. Systems under which certain types of communications were channeled according to one net and others through another might well have been much more efficient.
It can be plainly seen that my complaints are in a sense unfair. I do not object to the experiment, but to where it stopped. Clearly, there is no rule that everyone undertaking an experiment must continue to work on it until all corners have been explored. Science has advanced by a process of division of labor under which experiments performed by one man suggest further experiments by another. These investigators surely had a right to stop when they did, but why have the problems raised not yet been solved? There have been very many further experiments in which various methods of organizing groups have been tried, and not only is there no agreement as to the best organization, it cannot even be said that we are any closer to agreement.
The first and obvious reason for this apparent lack of progress is the extremely primitive state of the theories in this area. Most of this research has been done by sociologists and psychologists who have made no real attempt to develop sophisticated theories. This is not to say that they have no theories at all, but only that they are not particularly elaborate. I have on my desk at the moment a study by a professor in a major university on “Political Conflict within Nations” which finds that the principal factors leading to such conflict are “Turmoil, Revolution, and Subversion.” This is, of course, an extreme case,11 but this sort of thing does go by the name of theory in this field. Until complex theories are proposed and tested, little advance can be expected in the field, simply because the experiments will have no real hypothesis to test.
But there is another reason. Experiments using volunteers are likely to be very expensive. Usually the subjects must be paid for their time. Some people are willing to volunteer on a non-compensated basis for such experiments, but they are by no means a random selection of the population. Further, such people normally cannot be depended on to continue turning up for a long series of experiments unless the experiments are inherently interesting for the subject, unless, that is, they qualify as amusements. This in itself would rule out a large number of possible experiments. Further, such volunteers are not available in large numbers, which again rules out many experiments. Altogether, it would appear that payment is the only way to get an adequate supply of subjects for most experiments.
Suppose, for example, that we decide to run another set of experiments like the one discussed above, except that we are going to test six people. We have ten arrangements which we wish to test, and, in order to make it at least somewhat likely that we are getting a test of the way these arrangements would operate over the long term, we propose to run each group for forty hours on one type of arrangement. This does not, of course, mean that we will have them work a forty-hour week. Such experiments are generally performed as part-time evening activities. The forty hours, then, may well be spread out over a period of months. We can hardly take just one group for each arrangement, however, because that particular group may be in some way abnormal, with the result that our experiment would be biased. Statistical theory would indicate that we should have a very large number of groups trying each arrangement, but we shall compromise by having only ten group trials for each arrangement. This will not permit us to make fine discriminations, but it will be adequate for initial work.
If the subjects are paid $1.50 hourly, this part of our experiment will cost $36,000.12 But this is not all. We would have to have some supervisory personnel. There would also be the necessity of providing the materials for the problems which are to be solved and the special physical arrangements necessary for the experiments. Fortunately, this experiment does not involve any complicated calculation or statistical work; still, we would be lucky to get off with $50,000. And what would we get with our $50,000? A simple table of times spent by groups solving problems in the various possible arrangements. This table could probably be worked up into a short article, true, but it still seems very little. It is clear that information is most expensive in this field. Only high-energy physics, radio astronomy, and a few other special fields of the natural sciences have to pay this much for each “bit” of new information. If we wished really to explore the various possible ways of organizing groups, we would have to perform several hundred such experiments13 with the total cost running between $5 million and $10 million. At these prices it is not surprising that experimentation started late in the social sciences and is not yet well developed.
Basically it would appear that the problem is analogous to that of starting a new corporation where there is a sizable “entry barrier.” There are still relatively few social scientists, or administrators of research funds, who are interested in making such a radical departure from traditional methods. The research would be highly expensive, which makes it hard for eccentric individuals to undertake it. Finally, the first few experiments, like the first few experiments in physics, turned out to be relatively unfruitful. We need to do more experimenting in order to learn to experiment fruitfully. Thus opportunities for very important research are still left unexploited because the first few steps are extremely hard to make. A foundation willing to invest two or three million a year for five years in promoting such experiments might well make a major “breakthrough” in our methods of learning about ourselves. In the absence of such a program, there is a steady and increasing trickle of experiments in this area. Given time, and it may take a great deal of time, this trickle will become a torrent. Needless to say, these experiments will not bring the millennium. They will increase our knowledge, but they will still leave us with innumerable problems.
Even in these areas where experiments are not possible, we are by no means helpless. We have history on our side. There are almost no historical records which are of any help to natural scientists.14 The social scientist has an almost incredible amount of historical data at his disposal. The formal historical sections of most libraries take up more space than the scientific ones, and collectively they constitute only a small fraction of the historical material in existence. Almost all accounts of human behavior, from balance sheets of obscure groceries to diaries of courtesans, may contain useful data. The quantity of such material available is such that almost no one given library has more than a tiny part of it. The material is either badly indexed or not indexed, but this simply makes the researcher’s task difficult, not impossible.
The use of historical materials is frequently alleged to be subject to two difficulties which do not dog the natural scientist. These difficulties, both of which arise from the impossibility of arranging the conditions in the way a scientist does in his laboratory, are that many problems which we would like to have answered cannot be treated historically because there simply are no data, and the fact that any historical data will record the simultaneous effects of many causes. Necessarily, there will be many changes in variables other than the one under testing in any historic period. Both of these statements are true. It is frequently not realized, however, that they are also true of experiments in the natural sciences. In both the natural sciences and the social sciences, problems vary in difficulty from the easy to the very difficult, but there is no great gap between the data from the two fields.
The general theory of relativity, for its first twenty years, was hard to test experimentally. There were only a few phenomena available for such tests, and all of them presented great problems of measurement. One of these was the bending of light from stars as it passed near the sun. This effect could, until quite recently, be observed only during an eclipse, when the sun itself is blotted out. Even then it was observed for only a very few stars whose apparent position would be very close to the sun. As a consequence, few observations were available in the early days of the theory. This rather small collection of observations, unfortunately, showed a wide range of variation. None of them was very close to the prediction of Einstein’s theory, and some were very far off. Nevertheless, from the first the physicists considered these rather bad data as sufficient to test the theory. They simply thought that there must also be present some other effect of somewhat the same order of magnitude as the predicted one.15 There is no reason why social scientists should not be willing to accept equivalent data.
Social scientists sometimes seem to think that the natural scientist can simply go into his laboratory and set up a device to test any hypothesis which he cares to. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The state of knowledge at any given time is always such that most of the questions which would occur to a scientist are unanswerable by currently available techniques. Even where, in theory, some experiment can be performed, the physicist, as much as the social scientist, must consider the cost and the available equipment before deciding whether or not to undertake it. Finally, a given experiment may fail. The social scientist who has spent six months in the libraries trying to work out a solution of a problem through the use of historical data only to find that the data are insufficient should have sympathy for the scientist whose experiments just do not come off. Not only has he wasted his time, he may have to explain to his department head why $50,000 has been invested in an elaborate device which simply will not work.16
The scientist, guided by his general curiosity, reads the literature and carries out routine investigations until his special curiosity is aroused by some problem which appears to be susceptible to solution by consulting the facts. He then turns to an investigation of the facts and either solves his problem or finds that in the present situation it is insoluble. This description will fit either the social scientist who finds his facts in history or the natural scientist who gets them from the laboratory. In both cases, solutions available from the factual information which can be gathered are only a small fraction of those desired, and, in both cases, the real difference between the great and the mediocre investigator is the ability to guess properly what can be discovered with further research.
The problem of numerous variables which afflicts the student trying to verify some hypothesis in the social sciences is also serious for the experimentalist. It is true that on the whole it is less of a problem for the natural scientist, but in many experiments his problems are just as difficult as those of the social scientist.17 The problem of detecting the effect of one factor in an environment where many factors are operating is, of course, the reason why statistical method was invented. It works as well in one field as the other. The student of society will search history for cases which are as closely alike in the non-investigated variables as possible and then use statistics to cut out the other variations, which will nevertheless exist. In this he resembles the natural scientist, and he also resembles him in that frequently he is unsuccessful.
This discussion may surprise many students of society who do not realize the similarity between their historical studies and the laboratory work of the natural scientist. It will not, however, suggest much in the way of improvement in their methods. Even a cursory reading of the literature will convince the student that there are investigators whose use of historical materials is every bit as sophisticated as the best experiments of the physicist.
So far I have been discussing those reasons for the backwardness of the social sciences which are commonly advanced but which are, in my opinion, invalid. I should like to turn now to what I believe are the real reasons for this relative retardation. The unfavorable atmosphere for research in the social sciences cannot, I think, be denied. Clearly, the investigator in this field cannot expect that new and radically different ideas which he has discovered will always be granted the type of hearing they would receive in the natural sciences. The field is heavily circumscribed by such problems. Imagine a professor at Yale who makes a set of comparisons between whites and Negroes and finds the whites incontestably superior.18 In the first place, he would probably be unwilling, personally, to admit that these results are possible. Secondly, if he did complete such work and publish it, he would be subject to the strongest type of pressure from his colleagues.19 This pressure would normally not take the form of setting up other investigations which might serve to disprove the one criticized, but would be simply an exhibition of moral disapproval.
In a sense this is simply another way of describing scientific backwardness. There was a period when the investigator in the natural sciences was likely to avoid work which might lead him to socially disapproved results. In those days also if he did reach a “wrong” result, he was likely to be subject to considerable social pressure, which might well include police action. (In a large part of the world, but fortunately not in our own country, the social scientist is still subject to police repression.) Over time this has changed, and the present fortunate state of the natural sciences is, in part, simply the result of such changes. Once the scientists had demonstrated their ability to solve difficult problems, their success led to confidence in them, which, in turn, led them to investigate other problems, which led to more confidence, etc. This process would also have some effect in the social studies if only it could be started. Unfortunately it is both hard to start and unlikely to be as successful as in the natural sciences.
The natural sciences have two special advantages over the social sciences in this regard. In the first place, society is so organized that a minority who have truth on their side in the fields of the natural sciences are frequently able to coerce the erring majority into accepting their views.20 This process, which will be discussed more thoroughly below, obviously gives a great incentive to the discovery of truth. In the social fields, on the other hand, an erring majority can normally control the correct minority.21 Since new ideas are always originally held by minorities, this makes the progress of science much easier in the physical fields. Someone who has a new idea in, say, economics must gradually persuade people that he is correct until he has, substantially, majority support before his idea can be utilized. The inventor of something new in applied branches of the sciences, on the other hand, will normally have to persuade only a few people to get his idea into use. Once it is in use, if he is correct, it will usually be impossible for the majority to avoid adopting it. This climate is clearly much more favorable for the acceptance of new and radical ideas.
Another advantage held by the natural scientist is the general obscurity of his field of study. Even if he has new and radical ideas, they are unlikely to arouse much public opposition, simply because they concern subjects on which most people have no ideas at all. Galileo spent a long and useful life revolutionizing whole fields of the natural sciences right under the nose of the pope and got into serious trouble with the Inquisition only once. Suppose he had been a student of society, had begun his investigations with an inquiry into the relative merits of polygamy and monogamy, and then had gone on to consider the political organization of Medici Florence. The shape of the earth is a matter to which few persons devote much thought and one not well calculated to stir strong emotions. Certainly, it has little practical effect on more than a small minority of the human race. The social sciences, on the other hand, have the misfortune to study things which are of immediate concern to practically everyone and about which are clustered strongly felt emotions. It is almost inconceivable that an American social scientist should ever question the superiority of monogamy22 over polygamy. If he undertook research on this problem and got results contrary to the accepted ethic, he would find himself subject to very strong penalties, not only from non-scientists, but also from his colleagues. They would be, as well-indoctrinated citizens, appalled and, as colleagues, terrified.
The difficulties of research in areas where feelings are strong and where the results of research may outrage the moral ideology of the public, or of the researcher himself, probably account for the rapid development of anthropology in the twentieth century. No one is really offended by the peculiar customs of distant tribes of savages. It is therefore perfectly possible for students to make careful investigations of such matters and even to develop rudimentary theories. The absence of negative social pressure has permitted considerable development in this field, although recent developments seem to imply that the limits have been about reached.
Not only is the climate unfavorable for research in the social sciences, the motives for such research are much weaker than for other types of investigation. This may seem a paradox, since most people would agree that such research is really more important than research in the natural sciences, but remember we are considering individual motives. A man who thinks the social sciences more important may nevertheless be engaged in the natural sciences or in politics or even in business. Individuals are not, in general, led into their lifework by considerations of the general good, but of their own circumstances. As it happens, the motives which might lead individuals to engage in research are much weaker in the social than in the natural sciences.
Consider first the motives for applied research. The first thing to note is that there is no patent system for social inventions. If I were to discover, for example, a new sales technique, I would be unable to charge a royalty to others using it. Furthermore, an invention of this sort would be extremely difficult to keep secret, so that even if I did discover it, I probably would not be able to get any gain beyond a sort of head start applying it. If the new idea had, as new ideas frequently do, flaws which would take some time to eliminate, my competitors, who would take over after a little experience had been accumulated, would possibly be better off than I. I might have accidentally alienated my customers in the early stages of applying the idea.
The result is that few people are willing to invest much money in making social inventions. Inventions are made, as they would also be made in the natural sciences without the patent, but they are made only on a small scale. Individuals have ideas which work, entrepreneurs try out different arrangements, and there is the usual accretion of small improvements, but there is little in the line of formal applied research. I once was associated with a major public-opinion-polling organization. It polled the general public for political opinions and also did a lot of contract work for companies interested in the impact of their advertising or the type of product the customer wanted. Although the organization was in the business of selling research, it did little or none of its own.
The chiefs of the organization were highly intelligent men with wide interests and a great competence in their field. As a consequence, they had ideas for improved techniques with fair frequency. Their employees were also frequently highly intelligent and very competent, so they also had new ideas, but there was no formal research staff. This was particularly surprising in view of the fact that a large part of the personnel, both at the highest level and lower down, had started as researchers in universities. The organization, in fact, had been founded to apply new techniques which they had invented. The complete absence of “research-mindedness” can perhaps best be illustrated by their procedure in applying new ideas. They did not normally try out a number of new ideas or variants of the same idea at once. They simply tried to figure out by ordinary reasoning what would work. Sometimes, of course, it did not, but there was no formal technique of trying out a number of ideas with the advance knowledge that only one would be used.
The reasons for this attitude are, of course, clear. Serious research would have amounted to throwing money away. If the company had spent $100,000 developing a new technique, its competitors would have learned about it almost immediately and applied it themselves. The company with which I was associated would then be out its research money and, if it did this very often, out of business. Progress thus came as a sort of by-product of good management. No significant sums were invested in formal research, and the company did not feel that it could “get ahead” of its competitors in methods or techniques except, possibly, for a very short time. Naturally, progress was much slower than it would have been had the research industry been so organized that applied research in its own methodology was profitable.
The unfortunate absence of motives for applied research in the social sciences has undoubtedly been a major factor in the relative slowness of development in this field. The importance of applied work in the early history of the natural sciences is indisputable. Since the social studies are obviously in their early youth, the absence of a large body of empirical knowledge such as that which the natural sciences drew on in their early days is particularly unfortunate. It has often been noted that the developing scientific knowledge of the physicists and chemists had little effect on the average man’s life until well on in the nineteenth century.23 It is not quite so well known that the early scientists were deeply influenced by the “applied research” of practical men in various economic fields. Meetings of the Royal Society might be concerned solely with a description of some mechanical process or productive system in the arts. A great many improvements in the pure field originated from an investigation of what practical men were doing. The famous Encyclopedia, in fact, is largely simply a compendium of productive processes. The scientist of that day normally accepted the skilled practitioner of some trade as an authority and tried to work out scientific explanations for his procedures.
To repeat what was said in the first chapter, applied researchers have a role in checking the results of the pure researchers as well as making discoveries themselves. Being interested only in whether things work, they are not likely to be swept along with intellectual fads, and they are uninterested in the intellectual elegance of various theories. Further it is impossible to predict what applications they will make of any given theory. In consequence, they are the strongest possible check on the accuracy of the work of the pure scientists. In the Middle Ages the “theorists” drew maps of the world based on the best current views of cosmography, which had little real relation to the world. The practical navigators also drew maps, but theirs had much more correspondence with reality. A similar interest in only the practical application of theories has characterized the applied researcher to the present day. The absence of a community of such cynical critics in the social studies has undoubtedly greatly hindered their developments.24
The second possible motive for scientific inquiry is curiosity. Undoubtedly, most people are more curious about other people than about inanimate nature. This motive, therefore, might lead to more intense research in the social studies than in the natural sciences. Unfortunately, curiosity in this field is likely to be distracted to essentially non-scientific ends. In the first place, there is a strong possibility of artistic distraction. Literature of all kinds is quite frequently based on careful observation of human beings. A large number of brilliant men led by their curiosity to study their fellow men have produced great literature instead of science.
Even among those with no literary talent, curiosity may not lead to much in the way of scientific discovery. Curiosity in the natural sciences is necessarily concerned with generalities. We are simply not much interested in what happens to a single atom or to a given bar of metal. The only things we are curious about are general patterns which cover all atoms or all bars of a certain type of metal. We are therefore normally led by our curiosity to look for general theories. In dealing with our fellow human beings, we will frequently be led to examine unique cases. A man who is very curious about his fellow men may spend his entire life trying to understand various individual men, not in seeking general rules or statements. As a result, he may know certain people or even certain organizations very well, but he will not be in possession of any sort of scientific knowledge.
The same problem is likely to affect historical studies. The historian is largely led by his curiosity to examine some certain period or incident in order to find out what happened. He is, again, interested in particulars and not in generalities. Curiosity in this field, and it is a field of great fascination which has held the interest of many great scholars, usually leads only to particular information, not to general statements. In general the particular discoveries of the historians are not aimed at validating or contradicting general hypotheses about human behavior. In fact, of course, because of the complexity of the conditions in which historic events occur, a hypothesis can very seldom be tested by a single historic event. Normally, too many factors will be involved. It takes a sizable population of somewhat similar events to permit conclusions to be drawn by statistical methods, and the historian normally studies unique events, or a series of events connected by some chronological, geographical, or human factor, rather than a series connected by their relation to a hypothesis which it is desired to test.25 In general, the student of history (or the man who simply studies his fellows) will use vague and untested hypotheses to aid his studies of individual cases, rather than seeking generalizations for their own sake.
In addition to these distractions, the man who is curious about his fellow men is likely to be discouraged by the presently rather dim prospects of really satisfying his curiosity. In the physical sciences there is a long record of successful investigation, and the investigator can feel considerable confidence that his work will lead to concrete results. One of my friends, for example, has just started a project on the characteristics of molten salts which he expects will take him twenty years. He expects to spend his research time for a long period in careful measurement of various constants of molten salts and their solutions. Now, he is certain that he is measuring real quantities and that his measurements, while not exact, are very good. Further, he can feel a fair degree of confidence that when he finally gets a large body of results, they will fall into some pattern which can be used to predict other results. In other words, he has confidence that his curiosity will be satisfied, both as to specific finds and as to general phenomena.
The social investigator could never be sure that he was investigating anything half as real as my friend’s “heats of solution” and would know for certain that his results would be subject to large probable errors. Further, he could have little real confidence that his measurements would eventually lead to valid generalization. His situation is thus much less encouraging than that of most physical scientists. It takes a stronger curiosity and greater confidence to undertake investigations in the social sciences. The distractions we have already discussed also reduce the likelihood that curiosity will lead to important discoveries in the social sciences. Altogether, although men are probably more curious about each other than about the non-human part of nature, curiosity is probably a less strong motive for scientific investigation in this field than in the natural sciences.
The term “induced curiosity” which we have used so far begs important questions. The scheme under which a person’s income depends on what he turns out, but under which he is more or less free to look into anything he wishes, will certainly induce some sort of activity. It will, however, induce curiosity only if the rewards are distributed in such a manner as to benefit primarily the man who has actually increased human knowledge. In the natural sciences this is easy. Large numbers of the investigators in those fields are motivated by curiosity, and even larger numbers are interested in applications. To acquire a good reputation with such people, it is necessary to produce things that interest them, and they are interested only in the truth. Since they exercise a dominating control over these fields,26 this interest is dominant. It is, of course, in general easier to distinguish truth from falsehood in the natural sciences, but this is merely a reflection of their greater development. In this regard, the more developed a science is, the easier it is to develop further.
In the social field, however, things are not so easy. There are almost no applied researchers, and people impelled by curiosity are likely to be distracted from the scientific study of man. As a result the field is dominated by induced participants. Most people in the social sciences undertake investigations largely because that is the way they make their living. This normally leads them to do things they think will have a favorable effect on their future, and thus to a careful consideration of the “climate of opinion.” Now, in the physical sciences, composed largely of people who need the truth, either for practical reasons or to satisfy their curiosity, the climate of opinion is dominated by a desire for new knowledge. In the social field, unfortunately, this is only one, albeit a very important one, of the factors involved. Among the other factors which will affect the future of a researcher and which he must keep in mind, there are some which are simply irrational and disturbing from the standpoint of the growth of knowledge.
We have already discussed the tendency of researchers in the social sciences to avoid dangerous issues, to confine their investigations to “safe” subjects and “safe” conclusions. The bulk of the money available for “inducing” such research comes either from essentially charitable endowments or from government organizations (universities, of course, partake of both) and is likely to become unavailable to a man who annoys people with his discoveries. As a result, the students in this field have a strong tendency to devote large amounts of effort to “confirming” popular opinions. In most fields of science new ideas originate with the investigators and are only subsequently disseminated to the public. In the social sciences there is a strong tendency for the reverse process to take place. New currents of opinion will develop in the “real world,” and then investigators will undertake research which “proves” them to be true. The 1930’s, for example, witnessed a tremendous change in the economic policies of most Western countries. This was not at all the result of economic research; in fact, the economists largely used theories which condemned the new policies. After it was clear which way the wind was blowing the bulk of the economic profession jumped on the bandwagon, and the economic journals were full of articles which fitted in well with contemporary public opinion.
Why this difference between the social and natural sciences? The answer is, of course, complicated and involves many factors, but one of the most important is the fact that application of new ideas in the social sciences normally is much harder than in the natural sciences. Suppose, for example, that I decide that all automobile mufflers are improperly designed and that a radical change is necessary. If I can convince one of the hundred or so automobile or engine manufacturers in the world that my idea deserves a trial, then my idea will be applied. If I am right, the market process will permit me and my single ally to coerce the overwhelming majority of the manufacturers of such equipment into accepting the new idea. Further, I will be richly rewarded. This impresses a great many people as undemocratic and, in a sense, it is. A minority which happens to have truth on its side coerces the majority. Regardless of the political morality of the situation, this results in a great advantage for truth.27
The situation in the social sciences is almost exactly opposite. In a democracy a majority must be convinced before the idea can even be tried. Further, it is unlikely that the “inventor” will receive much in the way of reward. In a despotism, only one man must be convinced, but it is a specified man, and it is harder to convince a specified individual than one individual out of a large group. In either case, the new idea must be such as to attract considerable support before it has been tried, or it will never be tried. In the case of a physical invention, support must also be attracted, but only a very tiny amount compared with what must be attained for application for some idea for social change. Further, if some government adopts a proposal for a social change, its prestige is likely to be involved, and it will be reluctant to admit that it was wrong. As a consequence, errors may persist. In the physical sciences the man who guesses wrong also loses prestige if he must admit his error, but he will lose much more if he does not change quickly. The very great difference between the weight held by abstract truth in practical affairs in natural science and in social science is thus a major factor in accelerating the development of the natural sciences and retarding the development of the social sciences.
Another “random” factor in the development of social studies, which results from the relative scarcity of applied or curiosity motives, is the importance which the rather poorly thought out opinions of the people who put up the money assume in directing research. Some time ago I met a most distinguished anthropologist.28 In the course of our first conversation, he referred to his work and explained that he had spent the morning “correcting” a research paper which one of the men in his department had just sent in from an obscure part of Asia. This activity, which he thought was fundamentally a waste of time, consisted of making some minor changes to bring the paper into complete accord with what he felt were the views of the leading foundation financing the project. He pointed out that the necessity of such “correction” did not arise because of the incompetence of the researcher, who was aware of the views of the foundation at the time he left this country, but who could hardly keep up-to-date on the subject while engaged in studying a tiny village in a backward part of Asia.
Now, of course, the personnel of this particular foundation, whose opinions are so carefully studied by leading social scientists, do not wish to produce results which merely confirm their own prejudices. Nevertheless, they must decide who is to get the new grant; this decision will be made largely in terms of past work; and their evaluation of the past work will necessarily reflect their own judgment. They cannot rely on professional opinion because substantially all of the people qualified to have a professional opinion are trying vigorously to please them. Not only is each research project written up in a way thought to be pleasing to the foundation, criticisms of the projects also will be made in the same terms. The result is that the principal effect of much research in certain of the social sciences is simply to “confirm” vague and loosely held prejudices in the minds of the directors of foundations.
A final “irrational” effect arises from the tendency of researchers in the social sciences to “take in each other’s washing.” If a group of sufficient size, say fifty social scientists, all become interested in a given subject, then they can produce articles and research reports which create each other’s reputations by a process of gradually elaborating some fairly simple idea. If the subject they get started with is one of no real importance, this may result in a great waste of effort.
These, then, are “random” factors in the organization of the social sciences which are likely to cause the research to be pointless or misdirected. We will now turn to factors which may lead to quite deliberately false research.29 The moral and ideological reasons for such fakery have already been adequately discussed. The examples which come most readily to mind in the field of ideology refer to leftist writers in the early part of the century who, it is now being revealed, in such great numbers systematically distorted social data to support various left-wing positions. It should be noted, however, that this phenomenon is by no means limited to the left. While I can think of no single example on the right to put in opposition to the shredding of Beard’s historical work now being carried on by the younger historians, I am sure this merely reflects ignorance on my part.30
Whether the distortion of research by conscious effort or subconscious bias of interest groups is as important as the distortion arising from moral and ideological causes, I hesitate to say. Possibly, in the long run, it is more important. Note, however, that the possibility of this type of problem’s arising is largely due to the relative absence of people motivated purely to seek the truth in the social sciences. Hobbes once said, “If there were anyone with an interest to argue that 2 and 2 are 5, arithmetic would not be the wonder that it now is.”31 This is something of an oversimplification. There are so many people motivated highly for accuracy in mathematics that no conceivable interest group could overcome this vast interest. Still, if there were such a group, the fundamental and difficult problems involved in the basis of arithmetic would undoubtedly be much better known and much more frequently discussed than they are now.
A friend of mine in physics once said that he could not understand the social sciences. “You’re always arguing,” he continued. He was, although I do not think he realized it, quite an acute social critic and had neatly placed his hand on one of the major distinctions between the social and natural sciences. The social studies are dominated by arguments, while arguments are much less common in the “exact sciences.” Arguments, sometimes bitter and protracted, do occur in the natural sciences, but they occupy much less of the investigator’s time. Even a casual inspection of a journal in the natural sciences and one in the social sciences will indicate the great difference in the proportion of space devoted to disputation in the two fields. The social scientist must devote much of his time and considerable energy in “convincing” people, while the natural scientist can give much less energy to this matter. Further, arguments in the natural sciences normally are settled by some further advance in knowledge which makes one point of view or the other (sometimes both) obsolete. This is much less common in the social sciences. The fallacious defenses of tariffs which were invented in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries still appear with monotonous regularity in the literature.
The explanation of this phenomenon is fairly simple. While almost everyone would, in the long run, benefit from the removal of tariffs, and the raising of tariffs is a blow to the welfare of almost everyone, there are, at any given time, minorities which can be hurt by the reduction of specific tariffs and helped by the increase of others. Now the benefits of the repeal of a given tariff are likely to be dispersed over the whole population, while the injury will be concentrated in a small group. Although the benefit will be much greater in total than the injury, it is slight for any individual. The group which suffers concentrated injury, however, is likely to try to convince the majority that really they gain nothing and to hire economists for this purpose. Since there are always some such groups, there will always be economists who have been hired for this purpose.
Not all of the advocates of tariffs, of course, are hired by “the interests.” But the existence of people whose living does depend on finding arguments for tariffs and the further existence of another group who think that maybe, sometime in the future, they might need the assistance of either someone who believes in tariffs or an economist who is in this racket makes it possible for them to continue to publish, even in quite respectable journals. Thus a dispute which intellectually was settled over a century ago still continues.
The real difference between the social sciences and the natural sciences, then, is a difference in motivation. Investigators in the natural sciences are motivated by a desire to make practical applications of new knowledge, by curiosity, or by a desire to make money out of research in a field where only research leading to increases in knowledge is profitable. In the social sciences the possibility of practical applications is very limited, and curiosity is likely to be directed at non-scientific ends. As a result, the induced researchers are not subject to the strict controls that cover the activities of those in the natural sciences. Further, there are no significant motives for attempting to obscure or conceal the truth in the natural sciences, while the social fields abound with such motives. The “organization of inquiry” in the natural sciences is a system of voluntary co-operation in which the work of each investigator not only meets his own desires but also helps other investigators. The system works largely because of the similarity of the ends and presuppositions of the scientists. In the social studies, there is less similarity of ends and presuppositions and, consequently, less voluntary co-operation.
[1. ]In “Megaloscience” (Science, 148 [June 18, 1965], 1560–64), J. B. Adams points out that much of the research in high energy nuclear physics now is published in multiple author articles with twenty to thirty authors. Given that number of scientists, and about three assistants for each one, he computes a cost of about $3,000,000 per year. “Usually what one gets for this large investment of men and money is just another small piece of a vast jigsaw” (p. 1561). Surely there are few places in the social sciences where it takes this much effort to move even a small step forward.
[2. ]New York: Basic Books, 1959.
[3. ]Lawrence E. Fouraker and Sidney Siegel, Bargaining Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963).
[4. ]Lead editorial, “Research with Human Subjects,” Science, 132 (October 14, 1960), 989.
[5. ]In the case of those not able to give or withhold consent, small children, mental patients, etc., the consent will normally be given by whoever makes the other basic decisions for the patient.
[6. ]A famous experiment involving deception tested individuals for their willingness to inflict torture on others. For a newspaper account of the experiments and the issues involved, see New York Times, October 26, 1963, p. 28.
[7. ]Not all experiments in psychology require deception, of course. For an article describing experiments with human beings, see Robert L. Fantz, “The Origin of Form Perception,” Scientific American (May, 1961), 66–72.
[8. ]Disregarding also possible moral issues.
[9. ]The Policy Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951). The most relevant article is “Communication Patterns in Task-Oriented Groups,” pp. 193ff., by Alex Bavelas, which discusses research done by still other people. Although these particular experiments are convenient illustrations, compared with some of the recent work, they are rather naïve.
[10. ]I.e., a system under which information and instructions are passed through people as well as to people. For an authoritarian example, consider a structure consisting of one superior who deals with three subordinates who, in turn, each deal with three more inferiors. Would such a system be more or less efficient than some other organization?
[11. ]Also it appears to have little to do with the experiments discussed in the previous paragraph. My excuse for bringing it up in this context is partly the accident that I happened to have received it just before I wrote this page, but more important, the methods and approach are almost identical with those used in many examinations of the organization problem.
[12. ]6 × 10 × 40 × 10 × 1.50 = 36,000.
[13. ]It would be desirable to try at least some arrangements with personnel much superior to that which can be hired for $1.50. This would further run up the cost.
[14. ]Among the very few areas where such records are of assistance, only in astronomy can they be counted as of even second-class importance.
[15. ]This other effect might be inadequacies of the measuring techniques.
[16. ]Another similarity between the social scientist’s use of history and the natural scientist’s use of experiments lies in “ghost effects.” Natural scientists are accustomed to finding unlikely results sometimes in their experiments. These results, presumably the result of some as yet unknown phenomenon, normally eventually fade out in spite of the best efforts of the scientist to keep them alive. The recent discoveries indicating the existence of a four-hundred-year cycle in the appearance of talent in the human race are probably an example in the social sciences. See A. L. Kroeber, “Comments on the Grays’ Four Hundred Year Cycle in Human Ability,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1 (March, 1959), 370. For a more expensive example see the “Leading Indicators” developed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. These were statistical series which appeared to “lead” the business cycle. Since they have been regularly published by the Department of Commerce (Business Cycle Developments), they have gradually lost their “leading” character.
[17. ]William Farnsworth Loomis, “The Sex Gas of the Hydra,” Scientific American, 200, No. 34 (April, 1959), pp. 145–46, gives an account of a very ingenious series of experiments in which the experimenter was trying to control seventeen variables at one time, none of which was, as he eventually discovered, relevant.
[18. ]Or a professor in South Africa who gets the opposite results.
[19. ]Such work is occasionally done, but normally as a result of a sort of accident. A student who has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the current “line,” which at Yale is racial equality and in South Africa is racial inequality, might undertake comparative research with the intent of validating it. If the research led to the “wrong” result, it might nevertheless be published, although it would most assuredly be accompanied by an explanation of how the researcher came to undertake the work and some qualifications indicating that he did not really believe his results.
[20. ]In this connection it is not accidental that a number of the early Renaissance scientists were military engineers interested in problems of weapons technology. When Galileo took the chair of “mathematics” at Padua, he was expected to teach military engineering and fortification as well as what we now think of as mathematics. See Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 2. The prince who misguidedly opposed “progress” in these fields was likely to be most literally “coerced.” Somewhat similar lines of reasoning have led the Soviet Union to keep its ideology out of those branches of science which influence weapons development.
[21. ]Letter by Paul D. Foote, “Majority Opinion: Right or Wrong,” Science, 142 (October 18, 1963), 341.
[22. ]The term “monogamy” in the American context should not be taken as ruling out either changes of spouse or occasional flings.
[23. ]The first four volumes of the massive A History of Technology (Oxford, 1954–58) are largely devoted to the “prescientific” progress of technology.
[24. ]It may be that we are witnessing the dawn of applied social research in the fields of industrial management and polling. In both of these fields techniques originally developed by academics are being widely applied by practical men. So far, however, the usefulness of these techniques is very narrow, with the result that they have little effect on most of the social sciences.
[25. ]A small number of economic historians have recently informally organized the Cliometric Society, which aims at more general testing of hypotheses.
[26. ]In the early days of science the investigators motivated by curiosity or the desire to make practical applications made up practically the whole body of researchers in the natural sciences. Now they probably are in a minority, but the traditions established in earlier times and the continuing existence of a very large minority of people motivated by curiosity or practical interests make it unlikely that the natural sciences will ever come under the control of “induced” researchers.
[27. ]In the formalism developed by Arrow the procedure in the natural sciences involves an “imposed” solution, while in the social sciences we try for a “non-imposed,” “non-dictatorial” outcome. Kenneth J. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (Cowles Foundation monograph; New York: Wiley, 1951, 1963). The 1963 edition is much to be preferred since it contains not only the full text of the earlier monograph but also Arrow’s comments on more recent research. See also Duncan Black, The Theory of Committees and Elections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).
[28. ]In view of what follows, I should say that the distinction is fully merited.
[29. ]This book is not particularly concerned with the subjective state of the consciences of individual researchers, but I suppose I should state my beliefs. In the area to which we are turning, and for that matter the area which we have just left, there are undoubtedly people who quite consciously consider the factors we are discussing and decide on their research results solely in terms of what is in it for them. They are, however, a tiny minority. Another, larger, minority is composed of people who are not very perceptive and who are simply doing things that they have been told are desirable, but who have no idea that they are doing anything other than advancing knowledge in the best of all possible ways. The majority lives in a half-way house between these extremes, with the exact mixture of the two attitudes varying from person to person.
[30. ]The two principal attacks on Beard’s work are Robert E. Brown, Charles Beard and the Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), and Forrest McDonald, We the People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). There has been a counterattack by the orthodox historians, but in my judgment it has failed.
[31. ]Professor Bruno Leoni of Turin gave me this quotation which I have been unable to verify. If Hobbes did not say it, he should have.