Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who's a clever boy, then?

As a general rule I have a mistrust of anything which has the word "social" in it.

As soon as someone starts muttering about "social inclusion", "social cohesion" or "social justice" my inner self triggers a warning mechanism that tells me - beware, loony leftie about. It still amazes me that people are unable to equate people who talk incessantly about social this and social that as being social - ist. David Cameron is one of the worst offenders in that respect - always harking on about his "social agenda". Just admit it, Dave - you're a closet commie.

Anyway, nowhere does this mistrust of the word social manifest itself more with me than in the "social sciences".

It's one of the many peculiarities of this post modern world that if you stick the word "science" up against something then people suddenly seem to think it's factual, pertinent born out of solid research, empirical evidence and observation.

Don't get me wrong - some of it (far too little, in my opinion) is based on sound common sense, but the vast majority is just intellectual bullshitting. The trouble is a lot of people like intellectual bullshit and Daniel Finkelstein writing in The Times appears to be one of those when he discusses "social psychology".

[A]n intellectual revolution is under way that will change the way we think about public policy just as the free market economists did in the 1980s. I wonder whether one day soon a future party leader will turn round to his agent and say: “Finally, I've got it! Human behaviour.”

No shit! The trouble with human behaviour is, just as you think you have it figured, someone comes along to completely contradict you. There you are, post 1918, thinking we've had the war to end all wars and that the League Of Nations will ensure that nothing like that will ever happen again and then up pops up some turd with a tache. Human behaviour is such a bummer.

The breakthrough came with E.O. Wilson's controversial work Sociobiology, first published in 1975. Since then a number of academics, including familiar names such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have illuminated aspects of human behaviour by explaining how they arise from our Darwinian struggle.

Brilliant! OK, never mind the fact that the "Darwinian struggle" itself remains an unproven hypothesis surely it's obvious that you can still draw valid conclusions from an erroneous starting point? If not, then the IPCC are in deep shit.

The second stream of thought is behavioural economics. For twenty years now, some economists have been looking at the psychology of economic decision-making. Instead of seeing humans as rational calculating machines, behavioural economists have been conducting experiments to assess how real choices are made.

Uh oh - I can see where this is going.

On paper, two alternatives may look economically identical. But the way that they are framed and the context will, in the real world, determine the choice.

Astounding. So this intellectual breakthrough consists of revealing that people make different choices depending on their circumstances. Did we really need anyone to tell us that? Nevertheless, Finkelstein thinks he's on to something here.

The most important step forward has come with David Cameron's correct insistence that social change is as likely, or more likely, to come through influencing behaviour as it is through regulation.

Yes, yes - go on, Danny boy - you're are getting there. And .......

[T]he work of social psychologists on the power of public commitments is entirely absent from the debate on marriage and on reducing delinquency; and our struggle to overcome our tribal instincts doesn't figure in the discussion of immigration.

Damn - he lost the plot again. For a start, there is plenty of input from "social psychologists" to the debate on marriage and delinquency. The trouble is, progressives won't listen to them because they tend have titles like "Bishop of York" or The Pope".

And the only people struggling to "overcome our tribal instincts" are progressives. Most of us just accept that that is human behaviour - always has been and always will be. It doesn't matter how much you struggle to change it you never will - and if you try then I guarantee that one day it will come back to bite you on the arse very very hard. Ask the people of the former Yugoslavia if you don't believe me.

Finkelstein has fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Taking something old, repackaging it before selling it on as "new and improved" and charging twice the price for it. You see, "social psychology" is just another way of saying "religion" and we've just had fifty years of progressive policy to eradicate religion and the moral authority, personal discipline and individual responsibility it provided from policy making. Now they've discovered it's essential?

Wow - aren't you the clever one, Danny.

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