Friday, January 25, 2008

Lee McIntyre: Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior

My review will appear in Philosophy in Review

Lee McIntyre Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press 2006. Pp. xx + 144. (Paper: ISBN: 0-262-13469-1)

Lee McIntyre is a man on a mission. He has written a book which is not a monograph on the philosophy of the social sciences, but rather a manifesto and a call to arms. We must save the social and behavioral sciences in time for the social and behavioral sciences to save us! Our technologically modern world is still plagued by the ancient societal ills of crime, war, poverty, etc. However, McIntyre is convinced that with a bit of pluck and methodological purity, the human sciences can become genuinely predictive. Once that happens, human beings will be able to cure society’s ills with the help of evidence-based, rational, and scientifically valid policies. Appropriately, Dark Ages is written with painstaking concern for clarity and is addressed to a rather broader reading public than would be usually associated with the MIT Press.

According to McIntyre, the human sciences are currently in a very sorry state. While the natural sciences have largely thrown off the shackles of cultural dogmas, research and theory-building in the social and behavioral sciences are still held back by religious and ideological prejudice. He mostly cites examples of the pernicious effects of liberal political correctness, which stymies the search for innate gender and ethnic differences (as illustrated by the reception of Hermstein and Murray’s book, The Bell Curve) and which blindly attacks any methodologically sound research that might undermine liberal policy dogmas (such as Gary Kleck’s work on guns and violence in America). More generally, people simply try to avoid serious confrontations with ideas – such as the thesis that freedom of the will is an illusion – that challenge their fundamental human self-worth. McIntyre does not offer his own speculations on any of these emotionally-charged topics, but rather insists that we must wait upon the self-correcting process of scientific discovery to give us answers.

McIntyre further claims that the human sciences have suffered because they have failed to adopt the self-critical empiricist methodology that has propelled the natural sciences to greatness. He retells the story of the “cold fusion” fiasco of 1989 as an example of how the validity of scientific knowledge is preserved by the constant vigilance of researchers who seek the empirical falsification of proposed hypotheses. Unfortunately, such attempts at falsification are rarely made in the human sciences.

Some might claim that the quest for predictive human sciences faces obstacles with which the predictive natural sciences did not have to contend. McIntyre counters by employing historical examples to demonstrate that the natural sciences had to overcome the same kinds of methodological and societal barriers as face the social sciences today. Early modern physics and astronomy had to free themselves of a disciplinary mind-set which eschewed empirical testing and sought truth through sheer intellectual speculation. The authority of Aristotle, Scripture, and Church doctrine blocked the way towards genuine advances. McIntyre devotes half a chapter to recounting Galileo’s battle for the heliocentric model of the universe as an illustration of how the natural sciences prevailed over the kinds of biases and methodological weaknesses that still plague the social sciences today.

Another challenge comes from the philosophy of the social sciences. Some philosophers claim that it is impossible to describe human psychology in terms of the kinds of explanatory laws which make possible the scientific prediction and control of natural phenomena. McIntyre is well aware of this trend of thought; he has devoted an entire earlier book, Laws and Explanations in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior to the examination and critique of such claims. In what should have been the most philosophically interesting section of the book, McIntyre spends a mere fifteen pages describing and dismissing what he counts as the five major arguments made against the possibility of a predictive social science: A) The subject matter of the human sciences may appear to be overwhelmingly complex, but McIntyre assures us that the natural sciences have successfully studied complex systems. B) “Human behavior is part of an open system” (27) and thus determined by a potentially infinite array of factors, but this claim must itself be proven, and in any case science can handle open systems. C) Critics may say that “it is impossible to be objective about our own behavior” (28), but the natural sciences have also had to contend with illegitimate biases and interests. D) It is often impossible to perform controlled experiments in the social sciences, but that is also true of geology and astronomy. E) If people have free will, their behavior cannot be predicted. McIntyre replies that the hypothesis of human free must itself be subjected to empirical testing.

Many academic philosophers will be disappointed by McIntyre’s short list of objections and his quick treatment of them. However, it must be said in his defense that this is a book intended for a lay audience and that a fuller version of his arguments can be found in his earlier publications. Leaving those philosophical issues aside, a few other aspects of the book remain troubling. McIntyre over-dramatizes the policy failures of modern western societies. We simply do not suffer from many of the ancient social problems: no one dies of famine in western democracies, the rule of law is generally respected, people can travel across the countryside without fear of bandits, and illiteracy has been largely eradicated. McIntyre’s treatment of contemporary religion (including the surprising claim that, “It is an empirical question whether God exists” (54)) is weak and seems out of place. Perhaps this was an attempt to hitch his agenda to the neo-secularist bandwagon? (Sam Harris contributed a complimentary blurb to the book’s back cover) He also seems unconcerned about the danger that once armed with purportedly rigorous human sciences, governments might be tempted to interfere more deeply in the lives of citizens – for their own good, of course. Unfortunately, determination of the proper balance between social utility and individual freedom is not a problem that even a genuinely predictive social science would be able to solve on its own.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel