Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior by Lee McIntyre. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 121 pages, index. Hardcover; $24.95. ISBN: 0262134691.
During the period known as The Dark Ages, the progress of Western civilization virtually stopped. The knowledge gained by scholars of the classical age was lost and for nearly 600 years "there were no significant breakthroughs in art, science, philosophy, or literature". For those six centuries, life was governed by superstition and fear fueled by ignorance. In the introduction to this book, philosopher Lee C. McIntyre raises the questions of what it would feel like to live in a "dark age" and whether we would even realize that we were living in a dark age. The answer, he suggests, is that it would feel just like our lives do today, because we are living in a dark age whether most of us know it or not.
The re-discovery of the writings of Aristotle and other Classical thinkers in the Renaissance sparked the end of the dark ages in the humanities. Progress in the natural sciences, McIntyre points out, met violent opposition from the Catholic Church but was triumphant a few centuries later, although anti-evolutionists and global warming denialists continue to wage their battle against the natural sciences. The social sciences, however, still have not emerged at all from the Dark Ages in his view.
The result of this continuing Dark Age of the social sciences is that we are as ignorant today of the causes of human behavior as people centuries ago were of the causes of such natural phenomena as disease, famine, and eclipses. We have progressed no further in our understanding of what causes war, crime, and poverty — and of how to end them — than had our ancestors. What we need, McIntyre says, is another scientific revolution. We need the courage to apply a more rigorous methodology to the study of human behavior and to go where the empirical evidence leads us, even if it threatens our cherished beliefs about human autonomy, race, class, and gender.
McIntyre lists the most common objections to the social sciences as true science. He then quite effectively exposes each as false. Academic philosophers might find both his list of objections and his refutations too cursory but this book is intended for a lay audience and he has offered a fuller version of these arguments in his earlier published work, including his academic book Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences (Westview Press, 1996).
A major thrust of McIntyre's argument is that the physical sciences once had to overcome the same kinds of methodological and societal barriers that face the social sciences today. Both physics and astronomy had to free themselves of a disciplinary mind-set that 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 an account of 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. McIntyre argues that the social sciences can achieve the same kind of triumph if social scientist will only show the courage and commitment to scientific method that Galileo did.
In McIntyre's view, what is missing in today's social sciences is the scientific attitude -- the willingness to accept what the evidence shows even if it clashes with precious religious or political ideologies. Ideally, social scientists should have "a propensity for being surprised by what they find and the courage to investigate where they think the results might tell them something they don't really want to know." As his exemplar of such courage, he cites criminologist Gary Kleck's work on gun control. "Kleck's work is inspiring," he writes. "Here's a liberal Democrat who's not bringing politics into the work. He's convinced that this is an empirical field, that he should gather data without knowing in advance how it's going to turn out, and he ends up with some startling findings."
Related to this lack of courage, he asserts, is the failure of the social sciences to adopt the self-critical empiricist methodology that has propelled the physical and biological sciences to greatness. He recounts the example 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, he asserts, such attempts at falsification are rarely made in the social sciences.
While I agree with the principles he asserts, I find that like most philosophers of science he is lacking in knowledge or understanding of the real practical workings of the social sciences. Kleck's work, for instance, may diverge from his prior beliefs (neither McIntyre nor I know what his prior beliefs were) but his findings are consistent with widely held and well financed ideology. It is true that Kleck's work has been attacked by many who are ideologically opposed to his findings but it has also been criticized for its grave methodological weaknesses and for promoting conclusions that run contrary to evidence from methodologically superior sources. McIntyre shows a similar unfamiliarity with the issues or the evidence when he discusses Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve, another book attacked on ideological grounds but also quite validly condemned for bad science behind many of its assertions. For instance, Kleck's estimate of the number of times each year that someone shoots a criminal in self defense exceeds the total number of gunshot injuries annually. Both Kleck's work and, even moreso, The Bell Curve would have served better as examples of the ideologically driven social science McIntyre rightly condemns.
He is even further off-base in asserting that falsification is a rarely used approach in the social sciences. Certainly, if your idea of the social sciences includes the ilk of Sigmund Freud, Milton Friedman, then you are talking about social theories without science of any sort. There are, however, many social and behavioral scientists who do apply the classical method of testing hypotheses. Their work fills numerous scientific journals. And those journals are committed to the same critical approach that characterized the physical sciences in the "cold fusion" affair. I don't suggest that the social sciences have achieved that ideal state McIntyre describes, only that they are not so very far from it as he asserts.
Despite his strong commitment to ideology-free science, McIntyre makes his own ideological biases manifest when he wonders how a rational person can “believe in a concept so patently implausible as God”. I can't help but wonder whether he would be willing to set aside his prior opinions in examining any issue regarding religion -- he certainly has not done so in writing this book.
Regardless of these failings and his polemic style, McIntyre's book offers an optimistic view with some highly practical suggestions for applying scientific rigor to the understanding of some of the most fundamental problems facing us today. As he says in closing, "A science of human behavior can lead the way out of the current mess of unreason and tragedy that hangs over human affairs. The application of our highest form of reason, science, to the study of our social problems is our best hope for salvation. Even in a dark age, our reason can see us through. Our future may well be brighter that we have imagined it, for scientific inquiry is well equipped to answer the questions that have been put by human misery. The world awaits our response."