Arnold Kling  

Sociology on One Foot

Two Mea Culpas... Watchmen Non-Spoiler...

Tyler Cowen points to Fabio Rojas, who tries to reduce sociology to four issues. Rachel Kling once offered an even quicker summary of every sociological course: "There's poverty and America sucks."

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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Brian writes:

Rachel hit the nail on the head, but forgot to add that "There's poverty and it's America's fault...and America sucks". I took Demography while I was a Ph.D. candidate in Econ at Penn State. The utter disdain some of these Soc students and profs had for the U.S. was incredible.

Dev Smythe writes:

I would agree that sociology is for the most part a load of baloney.

But it's pretty rich for one set of pseudo scientists to ridicule another set of pseudo scientists for being involved in such a mushy, pseudo scientific discipline.

In light of recent events, one would think that such attitudes would be tempered.

Truth is, both of these pseudo scientific disciplines (economics & sociology) have had disastrous effects on US economic and social/welfare/educational policies.

One wonders if Miss Cleo would be a well respected "adviser" if she replaced her crystal ball with some mathematical models.

The really interesting question is whether astrology is more credible than economics and sociology. That's a tough one.

Oliver writes:

I second Dev Smythe. Apart from the disastrous effects thing. We all know which discpline wreaked more havoc, if only for the stronger impact it has on policy.

Jason writes:

Dev Smythe and Oliver are off base here.

Let me ask you this: Do you truly believe that the opinions of the majority of economists were actually implemented?

This crisis is all about regulatory arbitrage. AIG was one big regulatory arbitrage hedge fund. These companies that wrecked our economy did exactly what economics would tell you they'd do: Maximize profit.

Advances in economics and the understanding of the economy has had great benefits on the world. It also has had side effects.

Doctors and medical science ("real science") kill people all the time. Does that mean its all crap and should be thrown out? People are treated with drugs that have disastrous results on large populations because of science's mistakes. It happens. No science is perfect.

What about climate scientists? Meteorologists? They regularly fail to accurately predict weather. If a storm hits harder than expected and kills thousands of people, should we all scream for the end of climate science?

Do you really think any science discipline is without failure?

GDP has fallen. Your assets have fallen, but in many cases will recover. I know I know. This time is different. Everything is ending. Unfortunately for you naysayers, history is not on your side. Your assets will recover. You'll make less money this year. My god, the woes the economics profession has laid upon you.

Les writes:

Two posts have ridiculed economics, but have provided no specifics, no rationale, no support and no evidence for their disapproval. It seems that the critics take it as self-evident that economics is a "pseudo science."

I am sure there are many areas for improvement in economics. But criticisms without specifics, or rationale, or support or evidence are hard to take seriously, and seem to be perfect examples of "pseudo science."

Greg Ransom writes:

Note well that Obama is a follower of DuBois (p. 220 of Obama's memoir), and he took classes on Critical Race Theory and Critical Legal Theory at Harvard Law. In other words, Obama spent years soaking in the thinking those who believe, "Most of social life boils down to struggle over the stuff that gives your power, or resisting the power."

"There's poverty and America sucks"? Obama listened to 20 years of that from Rev. Wright ...

Niccolo writes:

I'm still trying to figure out why sociology is an offered course in college and alchemy is not.

Jesse writes:

Two posts have ridiculed economics, but have provided no specifics, no rationale, no support and no evidence for their disapproval. It seems that the critics take it as self-evident that economics is a "pseudo science."

That's funny, when I look at this thread I see a blogger and several commenters asserting (not arguing) that sociology is nonsense.

I mean, if I said "well, economics is a load of baloney, because it assumes that people are rational," or if I said, "well, economics is a load of baloney because no one knows why recessions happen," would I be cleverly dismantling an entire academic profession in one sentence, or would I simply be revealing my ignorance? Hmm.

GP writes:

A quick survey of these comments reveals that there's little difference in ontology, so it's the epistomology that concerns us. I'm not certain that ad hominem has resulted in a conclusive position for one over the other; more analysis required. Of course, that may be for naught as well because except for the enjoyment of the exercise, perhaps nothing is knowable, or rather there is nothing that is knowable. Surely our various epistemologies have an answer for that.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Back when I was in an honor's undergrad program at UC Irvine (1990ish), we had a special honors student get-together with some profs from sociology. This predated the statewide smoking ban in offices, and that was cool because the Dean of the school smoked a few packs for all of us. Anyway, I asked a Professor Emiritus (can't recall his name) why Social Sciences seemed in such disarray while the physical sciences had their stuff together. His reply was that the underpinnings of the physical sciences were fragile too and in my adult lifetime, I would likely see a reversal of fortunes for the physical and social sciences. He was a fairly old guy at the time, I'd bet in his 70s. I remember saying (in a way channeling a future in which I might find Robin Hanson's blog) "I wish we could bet on that.".

If two decades have changed nothing, I'm willing to bet the next five won't change much on that front either.

MHodak writes:

The physical sciences will continue to outperform the social sciences in every way that matters until the day that political outcomes depend upon conclusions in physics, chemistry, etc. You can already see the politicization of biology.

Les writes:

Jesse, since you asked, its the latter.

floccina writes:

I must have had some special soc proffs and interesting too.

MHodac think AGW and climatologist.

In the 1970s and 1980s environmental science went up against economics on the economists home field and got routed.

GU writes:

Re: recent events proving econ is a psuedo-scientific field.

1. If you think that politicians are applying pure economic theory, you are crazy. Politicians are extremely myopic and do whatever benefits them, regardless of what economic theory prescribes. Deviations from this description are rare.

2. More importantly, macroeconomics ≠ microeconomics. Micro is on much firmer ground than macro.

Kartik writes:


Do you still believe the 21st century GDP growth projections that you discussed over here :

Are you still expecting that level of growth in the 2020s, 30s, and 40s?

Kartik writes:

"There's poverty and America sucks."

Funny. I would think that those who hate poverty would love America, given that America has reduced more human poverty than any other society ever has.

So the very premise of leftism is corrupted.

As of now, China is more free-market, economically, than the US. China has lower taxes than the US. China pollutes the air more than the US. Should American leftists not hate China even more than the US?

Oliver writes:

Jason. I was playing devil's advocate to provoke a reaction such as yours--for which I thank you. I actually *am* a sociologist, and find the 'quick summary' Arnold provides of sociology insulting. The fact that economists like to hit their little brother science on the head now and then says more about them than us. Why don't they do it with history, for example? For the most part, we're witnessing a territorial academic demarcation game, played because the two discilines are so close to one another. Insults are commonly used in that game. All science is perverted when it has to be implemented in policy (be it in the public or the private sector), even the hard sciences, as you also pointed out.

Urstoff writes:

It's odd that people who call economics pseudo-science are quite confident in their causal assertions that it has hurt the economy. If economics isn't the science of the economy, then what justifies the causal claims that it has hurt the economy?

I don't know anything about sociology and thus can't comment on it's status as science (how does sociology justify it's causal claims?), but I've been around enough sociology students to wonder if there is some ideological bias simply due to the type of people that want to go into sociology (perhaps economics has this same problem?).

SydB writes:

It is illogical and misleading to malign a field by misleadingly presenting it as an ideology and political perspective.

Syd writes:

The two links point to the same place. Maybe correct them and delete this comment.

John writes:

With all of our science and math, we engineers still can't answer the most basic mystery posed by Economics and Sociology. Namely, "How can such massive textbooks be so soft and light?"

John Pertz writes:

Economists say "I think" more than sociologists.

Therefore, economics>sociology.

Any social science that uses "I think" is always worth taking seriously. And the diversity of opinion within economics is so large that it becomes difficult to merely dismiss as a pseudo science. Economics can mean so many things depending on what you want to use it to mean.

Oliver writes:

Urstoff. I don't think Economy is a pseudo-science. I was being provocative to get a counter reaction. I follow Arnold's and Bryan's blog because I think their insights are interesting *and* grounded in scientific reasoning, but if they would not agree that they are also not completely free of ideological bias, I would be disappointed in their lack of reflexivity. Concerning your doubts on how sociology justifies its causal claims, I can also warmly recommend the blog Arnold linked to above ( That organizational sociology blog can serve as an example of how sociology is not just lefties dabbling in partisan ramblings.

Brad Hutchings writes:

@Oliver, Longtime readers of Kling know Rachel to be his oldest daughter. So with that context, and remembering an essay somewhere where Rachel was asked on a true/false test if gender was determined by social structure (or some nonsense like that), what do you expect her to think and say?

Undergrad sociology classes are what shape widespread opinions of your discipline. Even sociology majors (actually "social ecology" was the refugee slash last chance major at UC Irvine at the time) I knew in college would admit that the whole course load and discipline was BS, but it was one they could get a degree in and that was important for future employment.

If you're offended, it's because your discipline makes a poor presentation to the hoards of students that pass through it, especially science and engineering types who are forced to sit through a quarter or three of the kind of tripe Rachel encountered. Clean that up and the judgements might be less harsh.

kurt writes:

I think Karl Popper called sociology theoretical history. I am even more skeptical on that than Popper.

Greg Ransom writes:

Hayek said "sociology" as a "science" makes about as much sense as "natureology" as a "science".

There was more to his argument, that that sums it up.

GP writes:

Mark Twain be Hayek to the punch, oberving that, (and I paraphrase),'...history isn't so much how it ocurred but how it was written'. Its always good to see the post-modern/positivist critcal theory debate rage on; it keeps everybody honest and reduces tendencies toward hubris in both all camps. If only we could have prevented our national policy makers from succumbing to the comfortable and soosthing narrative of hubris over the past 15 years. Competition is good for survival.

Oliver writes:

Brad. When I said I was offended I was using too strong a word. (I'm not native English--I speak Dutch.) I'm a very good sport about these things. And I am ashamed of poor sociologists too, and can attest that there are some prime examples of that in academia. I am the first to admit that above 85% of behavioural variation between sexes can be explained by biological factors, and am very modest about the explanation power of social factors in this matter. But I am amazed when people think that the link between gender and social structure is "some sort of nonsense". I think the experience of growing up as a woman in the U.S. is vastly different from other nations and cultures, and that cannot be due to biological or economical factors alone.

There exists good sociological research, grounded in statistical data bordering on the tedious, that does expand very informatively the insights of economics. To give one relevant example, given the housing bust, 'The Social Structures of the Economy' by Pierre Bourdieu (see Amazon) is a surprising study on the housing market--extending the economic framework with sociological explanations of what makes people think a house is worth how much depending on where (i.e. social background, and all the intellectual competences and social resources that come with that, besides financial purchasing power) they come from. The study is restricted to France (aside: I am not from France), but Bourdieu was straight forward about this restriction. Hope this adds at least two cents to the constructive and civil discussion we are having about this topic.

LemmusLemmus writes:


as usually used in sociology, "gender" is by definition the component of male-female differences that is shaped by social forces ("sex" being the biological component). So, if you remember the question correctly, the correct answer is clearly "yes" and the problem may have been that Rachel didn't do her homework.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Oliver, Your comment previous to my last one clearly puts you in the company of sociologists who aren't primarily hung up on a political agenda. It wasn't up when I wrote my last comment. I also accept that "offended" was stronger than you intended.

Since Arnold's daughter is now an unintended prop in this discussion, let me at least get the quote and context right. In an essay about the Larry Summers "Why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences" controversy, Arnold wrote:

At the University of Maryland, my oldest daughter, Rachel, took a class in which one test included a question in which she was asked to respond to the statement "Gender is socially determined." This was given, not as an essay question, but as a machine-graded true-false choice. Having read the textbook for the class, Rachel knew that the machine would treat "true" as the correct answer. She herself believes that the answer is something other than "true." Perhaps, if given an opportunity, she could have written a thoughtful, balanced essay on the topic. Evidently, however, her professor does not have a sufficiently open mind to be willing to face such an essay.

And to get to LemmusLemmus' comment, that's the root of the image problem that sociology has if it purports to be a science. The consequences of that being treated as axiomatic or definitional rather than open to reasonable debate or even discussion inevitably contribute to a leftist groupthink that many smart students without much of a political axe to grind taking such classes infer. Been there. Joked with them. The certitude is the problem, not the underlying contention.

At least with macro economics, there's the two hand problem.

LemmusLemmus writes:


your last comment leaves me somewhat baffled. The quote from Arnold suggests* that he mistook a question about a definition common in sociology as a question about an hypothesis. Your post suggests you don't understand the difference.

I merely suggested that the question was about a definition rather than about an hypothesis. If that guess is correct, a fuller wording of the question would have been "The definition of gender we learned in this course is..."

Using such a definition says nothing about the relative contributions of biology and social influences.

I wouldn't blame an econ test that asks a question along the lines of "gdp is..." to not allow the students to write essays about various factors' contributions to gdp.

It's a small point, really. I'm the first in line to criticize dogmatic and anti-empirical tendencies in sociology. Not least because they give me a bad name.

*Suggests! I haven't taken the class nor have I read the textbook. And I believe there actually are textbooks that dogmatically state that all nonphysical male-female differences are social in origin, which I think is nonsense.

Brad Hutchings writes:

LemmusLemmus wrote:

I merely suggested that the question was about a definition rather than about an hypothesis. If that guess is correct, a fuller wording of the question would have been "The definition of gender we learned in this course is..."

Exactly. Coincidentally, that is what I found distinguished hard science (and math) taught at UC Irvine at the undergrad level from, for example, high school chemistry. The "facts" of the courses weren't taught as absolute truth, per se, but as assumptions or repercussions of somebody's model of truth, and the somebody and the model were as important as the facts. Even in computer science (which I majored, and which embarrassingly needs to stick "science" in its name to assert its relevance), courses repeatedly set up models of things (a Turing Machine for example) and explored the ramifications.

Look no further than Al Gore (Ph.D. in Cosmetology) telling his critics that the science of climate change is settled to see what happens when "science" ignores context and shuts off debate and discussion. In my mind, if there should be just one ethical tenet to unite scientists of all stripes, it's that facts have no meaning without context, and the context should be explicitly stated or referred to when discussing the facts. Call it the scientific humility principle.

hacs writes:

"There's poverty and America sucks."


That's true.

Gene Berman writes:

Brad Hutchings:

Even those of us who've only graduated high school know your second comment should've read "hordes" (of students).

Jesse writes:

Brad: the ironic thing is that as far as I can see sociologists are much, much, much more likely to think that scientifically theories are socially constructed than economists are.

Bob Knaus writes:

A few years back, one of the adult leaders of a boy scout troop that chartered my sailboat for the week told me he worked for the IRS as an economist. Making polite conversation, I enquired what attracted him to the field.

"Economics is the queen of social sciences." he replied.

I asked him what the king was. He was at a loss for an answer.

That's pretty well summed it up for me since then.

is13 writes:

And economics is summed up by: "Everbody is rational and free markets are awesome."

Bob the Chef writes:


Now that I have that out of my system, I think a discussion of the place of the social sciences with in the sciences is crucial.

First off, I'd like to comment that not only is the post-modernist/positivist axis an artificial construction, but both "camps" are beyond a shadow of a doubt idiotic to the highest degree, and I say this with the utmost sincerity. Positivism was decisively destroyed by Godel almost a century ago, and yet its nasty tendrils still permeate the thinking of many of the so-called "intelligentsia." Post-modernism, on the other hand, the latest neo-Cartesian academic fad, asserts on the one hand an absolute epistemology where there shouldn't be one, and on the other is epistemologically unable to justify science, much less sustain it as an endeavor. Likewise, reductionism, which in limited cases or by accident, has shown results, accepted absolutely, shows a real intellectual mediocrity and profound ignorance of the philosophical underpinnings of the sciences. Critical and rational minds which accept the evidence of the senses cannot possibly adopt any of these philosophical outlooks seriously.

Second, the philosophical journey it took to allow the formation of the empirical sciences in the first place is a long one, and beyond the scope of this rant. However, it is the empirical sciences that serve as a culmination of this journey, a culmination not in the sense that such sciences are the perfection of the journey, for that would be positivism. No, a temporal culmination that is the fruit of the journey, and in that sense only, is perfective of the sciences, in terms of completeness.

But inside the empirical sciences, it is clear that there exists a hierarchy of rigor which is undeniable. Physics, the mother of all physical sciences, should be seen as the most rigorous. Why? Exactly because of the way theory and experiment and causation are intertwined, and expressed in the language of the most rigorous of the non-philosophical sciences, mathematics. Chemistry and biology follow. It should be clear to anyone familiar with a deep knowledge of the nature of these sciences that causality is a step removed in disciplines such as biology where we begin to see the application of correlation as a method of investigating possible causes, which per se is not a problem, but speaks about the inherent problem of pinpointing causality in such investigations.

At this point, it should be completely obvious that the schools of the social sciences as we observe them today are very often blends of statistical models expressing correlations and some philosophical tenets which are often of questionable soundness and necessity. That isn't to say that the fields are in their essence without merit, but the methodologies of these sciences, at least at present, impose rather tight limits on what can be said to be known by them, as opposed to supposed. Whatever the cause of the limitation of the methodologies, it is a set of limits that any responsible mind should recognize. Very often the questions mis-attributed to the social sciences are philosophical in nature, and very often, the definition of valid scientific methodology is too restrictive to allow questions of a more social nature to be considered "scientific."

All that being said, the physical sciences cannot be compared to the social sciences in the naive sense. The success of the empirical method observed in the physical sciences does not carry over quite so well to the social sciences. But using the empirical method as a standard for the social science smacks of positivism and is asking for trouble. While it is completely understandable that many may grow frustrated by the bogus wankery that is very often emitted by the schools of social science, it should not be used to condemn the aspiration or fundamental goals of these fields.

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