Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 8, 2017

in Hayek, Hubris and humility, Scientism

… is from page 11 of Bruce Caldwell’s superb “Introduction” to his 2010 collection of F.A. Hayek’s works on scientism and scientific methods, Studies on the Abuse & Decline of Reason, which is volume 13 of the Collected Works of F.A. Hayek (footnote deleted):

Given the sometimes vast number of elements whose interactions create social structures and institutions, the social scientist will rarely be able to predict precise outcomes: one can accurately describe how a footpath will form, but one typically will not be able to predict its exact position.  This leads him [Hayek] to distinguish between explanations that allow predictions and those that only can describe the principle by which a phenomenon is produced.  Because of the nature of our materials, ‘explanations of the principle’ and ‘pattern predictions’ are often the best we can do in the social sciences.  This fundamental conclusion about the limits of the social sciences is one that Hayek would retain and emphasise throughout his life.

DBx: Among Hayek’s lessons is that it is unscientific to carry over the methods used in one kind of scientific investigation to another kind of scientific investigation simply because those methods work well in the first kind of investigation.  What works well for investigation N might or might not work well for investigation S if S includes phenomena substantially different from those in N.  To simply assume that what works well as a method for investigating N will work well as a method for investigating S is to reject experience and ‘the data’ in favor of blind faith in a particular method of investigation.

The successful use of microscopes in biology does not imply that microscopes are useful tools for astronomers.  Likewise, the successful use of, say, mathematics in the natural sciences does not imply that mathematics are always useful tools for social scientists.


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