NYT – Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences

And now for something completely different!  Nikolas Cristakis has a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times advocating a fundamental restructuring of the social sciences. His proposal involves jettisoning the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), in which people are assumed to be infinitely malleable computing machines limited only by their environment. Instead he proposes that the social sciences take seriously the links to the natural sciences in areas such as brain chemistry and evolutionary biology. In financial economics there have been some moves in this direction, notably at MIT and Cal Tech.  It would be much to the credit of Irish universities if they could be on the forefront of this new approach.

22 replies on “NYT – Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences”

I am not sure about this. Do we really need to study this?
Napoleon summed up human motivations as being fear and self interest. Once we stop deluding ourselves to the contrary we can legislate for a decent world. But we must legislate for the world as it is – not for some idealised form of humanity.
People are basically animals. Their so called intelligence is used to serve their primitive drives much in the same way as wings serve a bird or a sting serves an insect. The fallacy we labour under is that we are primarily rational beings – reason is just the tool that we use to fulfil our basic goals

@Eureka,a rather dim view,w/on wanting to go all spiritual here,but some people do believe in a higher power,get great solace from that and a moral compass,a life guide….I know,I know starting sound like a yank just born again.
Yep that’s me knocking at your door with pamphlets…

Regarding the jist off the article,I haven’t a clue not ,not my area at all.But anything that improves the desirability and hopefully the woeful rankings of Irish uni’s,given the outrageous salaries and beni’s enjoyed by so called experts is worth exploring.if I’m not mistaken there was a UK student visa controversy perhaps a window to exploit…send your students to Ireland no questions asked…wasn’t that long ago you could buy an Irish passport/investement visa without any due diligence.


It’s somewhat bemusing and ironic that too date irush third level places of ehm learning,have not come under more scrutinity.
The people responsible for wrecking the country and the loss of hard won sovereignty,it’s fair to say for the most part were “educated” at these institutions.Regulators,bankers,politicians and builders are all attended the same crap places of haha learning.
Someone told me recently that beer and liquor companies are restricted in hosting promotions or two for ones.As once irish people see “free” self control goes out the window,people who say normally have 3 pints feel somewhat obliged to have six as its free.
Having also nearly bern run over by irish tourists loading up at breakfasts buffets,despite lunch also a buffet “free” or unlimited provokes a primial instinct in the irish,grab as much as you can

Charge them to attend third level,has anyone any evidence that free has resulted in more people from less privileged backgrounds benefiting,it’s a subsidy for the middle and upper class.
If irish people are made pay for it they may actually look to get a decent education because “free” is not working.

theres a significant literature on the effect of fees on participation.

@Eureka how many people directly in the firing line and feeling the brunt of austerity are paying the price for decisions,made by university “educated” people?
How many non uni educated were in the room the night off the bank guarantee,people with market and street sense?
I travel to Florida quite a bit and witnessed Irish people gorging themselves at the “free” buffet,it’s often included in the room price.Stuffing themselves like gluttons,free just does not with Irish people,make they pay full boat,attendance will increase demands for higher standards etc.
@BL thanks its next on my list,planning on wading thru reams of academic papers,prepared by academics extolling the virtues of free education as it results in no accountability,sure go way out what ya want its free:)

@Ernie Ball,was expecting an appearance..gosh you were all the evictions, repo market driven solutions for mortgages,such enthusiasm and gusto, gung ho can do attitude,but this sacred cow,how progressive shut it down..

“The main purpose of this paper was to investigate the effect, if any, of the abolition of university fees in Ireland in the mid-1990s. This reform, and the possibility of reversing it, has come under renewed discussion in recent years partly because of financial pressures on the universities as well as a desire for greater financial autonomy by them. However a defence of the reform that is commonly offered is that, somehow, it lead to greater access by groups that have been traditionally under-represented in higher education in general and university in particular. On the face of it, this is highly unlikely to be true since prior to the reform many low income students did not pay fees because they received a means tested grant covering both tuition costs and a contribution to their living expenses…”

@Ernie Ball if you have any links that suggest/support the argument that free third level education has somehow benefited that section of society enduring austerity the most,do share….
The point is just like not pursuing foreclosure/evictions it’s a subsidy or gimme to the middle class,who made the disastrous decisions and for the most part were educated in Ireland at third level educations.
I find your positions contradictory in advocating market driven some may say callous solutions to distressed families underwater financially….but discussing or even mentioning the mere concept of changing the irish education system..

While I do have some sympathy for the poor and downtrodden owners of second and third homes in negative equity, I don’t have much sympathy for them.

Only in Ireland is opposition to property taxes a leftist idea. Ditto the idea of getting poorer than average taxpayers to pay to keep wealthier taxpayers living in the style to which they are accustomed.

I’m opposed to most forms of middle- and upper-class welfare, including the abolition of 3rd-level fees. So I fail to see what’s contradictory about these views.

What I do find idiotic is your ham-fisted attempt to blame educators for Anglo.

UCD is offering a PhD program in computational social science iirc? Seems to be a good opportunity as the OP says to develop a niche in areas like network science, complexity etc
Though do we have the homegrown expertise at the minute to teach in these areas?

The paper below looked at the effect of fee abolition in Ireland. Its important to remember that fees were abolished for the well-off. Those from low SES wouldn’t have paid fees anyway because of the local authority grant. This subtlety seems to have escaped advocates of the policy.
In the international literature, most recent papers show that increases in fees depress enrollment rates. See papers by Hubner for Germany, Neill for Canada, Hemelt & Marcotte for the US. Dynarksi’s work for the US is also broadly consistent with this. She has also emphasized the negative effect of the complexity of applying for financial aid- interesting in the light of the problems with SUSI. Although its perhaps too early to say , the reintroduction of sizeable fees in the UK seems likely to depress enrollment- though it depends on SES & institution (see their Independent Commission on Fees).
As for what this thread is supposed to be about: interesting but…I think the suggested restructuring is unlikely to occur and there is zero chance of it happening here. It probably pays for us to be a follower.


Ah Brian,perhaps I was acting as an agent provocateur,to provoke a debate.Is’n it ironic don’t you think,that those bearing the brunt of austerity had very little say in the decision making ?
Yet,the civil servants,bankers,chartered surveyors children get to enjoy a free third level education?
Stay in their gaffs…keep their pensions….
Having,listened to the tapes and various other sources,i strongly believe that stupidity,hubris and lack of street smarts or simple common sense were major contributory factors….while not attributing blame solely on the quality of third level education its worth looking at.
I did read a little on the topic,no expert here I freely admit,.my spelling and grammar is atrocious,the reading skills are quite decent,I did read the paper I linked.

@ Gregory Connor

The old ‘dopes and dupes’ SSSM model of human behaviour has long been discredited. In the internet age it is increasingly exposed as redundant. The real question raised by the NYT article is, I think, about the capacity for evolution of theoretical models and departure from traditional frameworks of analysis within the social sciences, including economics, if the social sciences are to retain some kind of relevance both in terms of effective and credible analysis of society or any hope of exercising influence on informing social policy. As a contributor to a workshop I attended in Sweden some weeks past wistfully declaimed: “The Academy is dying!” To which all I could irreverently think by way of riposte was: “What a surprise! Then hara-kiri is never pretty, is it?”

Ironically, despite its well-documented manifest failures, economics and economists have never had it so good – they provide a whole new cast of ‘celebrities’ in a discipline which proved incapable of predicting the catastrophe in which our previously so pleasant liberal democratic societies are now engulfed. I never thought I would live to see the day where, over a five year period, I would be musing on the progression in the TV image of a previously floppy raven- haired economist towards shorter, neater and decidedly greying locks, whilst as baffled as ever in seeking to decipher the meaning of what it is the man is actually trying to say. (My fault, not his!) And yes, I have been reading Bouchard, who argues persuasively about the irrationality of so-called rationality in economic theory (Bouchard (2009) Nature 457.147). As Bouchard, bless him, points out: “Nothing is more dangerous than dogmas donned with scientific feathers”.

Aside from the theoretical impasse, or perhaps more correctly the brick wall that several disciplines within SSSM have careered into simply because they appear, with ever increasing specialisation, to have lost the capacity to ‘talk’ to each other and enable ideas and perspectives to converge in any productive way, there’s the ‘next generation’ problem. It’s obvious from this blog that there are quite exciting things beginning to happen in the education of the next generation of economists – modules on economic history and behavioural economics, as documented in recent threads. That’s great.

But just how geared up are systems within the Irish Academy to facilitate cross or interdisciplinary modules? Personally, I don’t think it’s a question of offering post graduate training courses; it needs to simultaneously happen at undergraduate level as well. Otherwise, the risk is that we train the postgraduates but they will then all hare off to find fulfilling jobs and careers in the US , UK or other European institutions, because opportunities within the Irish Academy are practically non-existent. The Americans, as always, are streets ahead of us.

A conference on this might be a good place to start?

The Irish Academy has a little problem with ‘meaning’, somewhat hermeneutically challeged, and continues, in the majority of cases, with the abridged concept of instrumental rationality, which is only one of the rationalities. Change would require an interdisciplinary revolution – which present participants are incapable of.

@John Gallaher — Thanks for that. It seems pretty bland to me, mostly just waffle, but maybe I missed something? Central bankers tend to hide any substantive points under layers of text, but I could not find one. Were you there and was there a point being made? I missed it if there was one. Was the title of the talk “Next Time Will Be Different”?

@Gregory gosh no,still in NY-a few bits jumped out after reading it.
title was ‘restoring confidence in the financial system’-yes an oxymoron to start with,appears the CB is preparing for some turbulent times ahead…

“So it would seem in this regard, Ireland is set for a turbulent period over the next few months. Those households so mired in debt and unable to pay will need to confront that difficult fact and thereafter engage actively with their bank. There will be some who will unfortunately lose their homes, and some who will need to enter insolvency proceedings. But there will also be many of us who will have to continue to face the consequences of bad investment or financial decisions who will still have to pay up. Separating those two and keeping them separate is difficult but essential because it is all we can collectively afford given the size of the loan numbers outlined.
All of this is difficult, just as cleaning up any mess is difficult and it requires compassion for those fallen on hard times and an acceptance that they must be helped. However and here it gets more difficult yet, this compassion and realism needs to be mixed with real skills for uncovering those that may be trying it on. There will be those who are heavily in debt but who can still afford to pay and they will have to continue to do so. This ability to distinguish between, and separate, the response to these two distinct groups needs to be part of the toolkit for bankers, the legislature and the administrative and judicial systems that are dealing with these issues and indeed for wider society and its tolerance for that kind of behaviour.”

As an aside fair play to you for extrapolating the US numbers to Ireland,it was made abundantly clear that it was an exercise,given the lack of cooperation and dearth of real data.
If i’m not mistaken you also offered to crunch the numbers if the required data was made available,many thanks for hosting,moderating and generating some excellent debates/discussions on default.
Only in ireland would the non payment off legally binding secured debts become a moral morass,with non-performing BTL cut off the blood supply to the patient,lockbox or direct all payments to the lender.
Again thanks for being in the forefront off this debate,a thankless task.

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