The Tyranny of Evidence: Do the social sciences border on being junk science?


EXCERPT: [...] how much one can learn from past financial crises, in thinking about future financial crises. How much, to put it in more general – and philosophical – terms, one can learn inductively. There is plenty one can learn; but there is also a severe limit on what one can learn. There is a limit, in other words, on the value of evidence.

[...] For we are always going to be living in a social world that defies full comprehension and control. A world that we do not and never will fully understand [...] The real challenge, the deep thing that one has to learn, is how best to seek safety for the economy, for citizens, in such a world: in a world that one accepts as a world one cannot predict and control. [...] This is the challenge we face: to learn to live more safely in a world that we are never going to be able to understand or control or even ‘manage’. This entails a ‘letting-go’. But the alternative is worse: that, by seeking to manage, to master, our world, we give ourselves a false assurance that all is going to be well, and make it more likely that we will ‘blow up’.

[...] The Precautionary Principle (PP) states, basically, that, where the stakes are high, a lack of full knowledge or of reliable models – a lack of certainty – should not be a barrier to legitimate precautionary action. We shouldn't, in other words, need certainty, in order to justify protective action. Invoking precaution is thus an alternative to or a complement to invoking evidence. Our contemporary politics, economics, risk-management, medicine and science are all fixated on evidence and on being 'evidence-based’. My argument is that this is dangerous. One can’t have ‘evidence’ of things that haven’t happened yet, nor to any meaningful degree of things that are very rare, nor to any meaningful degree of things dependent upon human decision.

[...] In conclusion:

i) The social world is necessarily partly opaque to social/‘scientific’ knowledge, precisely because it is constituted by human beings, who are intrinsically understanders, intrinsically responsive to efforts to know them, etc.

ii) We need to be less fixated on the evidence, where the human world is concerned, and more determined to take up a precautionary stance. The stakes are high. It would be wrong to gamble, in such a situation. And being ‘evidence-based’, I have shown, is, ironically, being just such a foolish and unethical gambler.

In sum, what’s more reliable than evidence? Precaution....

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