(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – the pseduo-science of counting

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How did the price of mangos in Kabul influence anti-Taliban operations in the eastern part of the country?

They didn’t.

“…we certainly need statistical investigations, comparative analyses, historical studies and abstract deductive reasoning as well.”

What a great pity, because…

“The reason for that scarcity is the wide acceptance dogma that nothing is worth knowing that cannot be counted, and that any information which is tabulated becomes thereby scientific – surely one of the grossest superstitions of our time, whose vogue can only stem from the fact that it enables a large number of people to make a living by indulging easy pseudo-science.”

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – jargon and frameworks

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Beware those with a hyper-focus on methodology.

“A sociologist or psychologist obsessed with frameworks, jargon and techniques resembles a carpenter who becomes so worried about keeping his tools clean that he has no time to cut the wood.”

And further…

“These tendencies are reinforced by the feeling of helplessness in the face of an unmanageable complexity of social phenomena, and the fear of dabbling with dangerous issues, which lurk throughout the field of social sciences. As a result it is forgotten that unfettered thought is the most essential research method.

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery

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Sorcery loses to science, but elements remain…

“Sorcery lost, not because of any waning of its intrinsic appeal to the human mind, but because it failed to match the power created by science. But, though abandoned as a tool for controlling nature, incantations remain more effective for manipulating crowds than logical arguments, so that in the conduct of human affairs, sorcery continues to be stronger than science.”

Stansilav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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Social Sciences as Sorcery

Many years ago someone recommended that I find an old book titled “Social Sciences as Sorcery.” I was in a seminar, and the speaker was (and still is) a revered thought leader on the topic of counter-insurgency.

I was asking lots of challenging questions, poking holes in some of the assumptions and assertions that underpin COIN, and there just wasn’t enough time to address them all.

“Find Social Sciences as Sorcery,” he said.

And so I did. 

This was well over a decade ago. And the book itself was published in 1972.

I found a copy and read it.

Well, actually, I read part of it. The subject matter is dense. It’s not an easy read. You have to focus.

I recently came back to it, and I’m glad I did. 

The thesis, at its core, is that understanding the human dimension – the mind, psychology, complex social interactions, etc. – is incredibly difficult. So much so to be nearly impossible. 

How do you understand the mind of another with your own mind? 

No one said it was going to be easy, but because it is precisely so difficult, and because so many of our problems seemingly call for a “social” solution, this opens the door for social scientists to offer solutions. 

Unfortunately, most of this is just sorcery.

Hucksterism.

The author, Stanislav Andreski writes:

“The easiest way out is always not to unduly worry about the truth, and tell people what they want to hear, while the secret of success is to be able to guess what it is they want to hear at the given time and place.”

The “truth,” when it comes to complex social dynamics and psychology, is that we usually don’t know the answer. 

So then, why wager a guess?

Because there is always someone out there who is hoping you might be right. This person is desperate for a solution.

And there is always someone out there ready to cash in on that hope.

There were a bunch of tweets going around recently quoting this line from Stanley McChrystal:

“Implementing an effective counter-insurgency requires ‘a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.'”

I disagree. 

Do you really think if we just had that one expert sitting in the room who could tell us what to do and what to say and what image to put in the tweet, we could turn this whole thing around?

I don’t.

Related: How important is culture training, anyway?

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