Albert Hirschman on uncertainty

Albert Hirschman was a particularly important non-conformist in 20th-century social science. (Here is an earlier discussion of Jeremy Adelman's biography of Hirschman (link).) Two of the things I admire most about him are his unwillingness to be bound by disciplinary divisions and his deep understanding of the uncertainty of virtually all social-science predictions. The social …

Predicting, forecasting, and superforecasting

I have expressed a lot of reservation about the feasibility of prediction of large, important outcomes in the social world (link, link, link). Here are a couple of observations drawn from these earlier posts: We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to …

Social upheaval

image: Monte Carlo simulation of portfolio value We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to the large social changes that occur. When there are crises -- like the financial crisis of 2008 or the riots in London and Stockholm in the past …

The near future

There is a lot going on in America and the world today: climate change, increasing separation between the rich and the non-rich, entrenched poverty in cities, continuing effects of racism in American life, and a rising level of political extremism in this country and elsewhere, for starters. Add to this politico-military instability in Europe, continuing …

Large predictions in history

To what extent is it possible to predict the course of large-scale history -- the rise and fall of empires, the occurrence of revolution, the crises of capitalism, or the ultimate failure of twentieth-century Communism? One possible basis for predictions is the availability of theories of underlying processes. To arrive at a supportable prediction about …

Scenario-based projections of social processes

As we have noted in previous posts, social outcomes are highly path-dependent and contingent (link, link, link, link). This implies that it is difficult to predict the consequences of even a single causal intervention within a complex social environment including numerous actors -- say, a new land use policy, a new state tax on services, or a sweeping …

The inexact science of economics

Image: social accounting matrix, Bolivia, 1997Economics is an "inexact" science; or so Daniel Hausman argues in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics (Google Books link).  As it implies, this description conveys that economic laws have only a loose fit with observed economic behavior.  Here are the loosely related interpretations that Hausman offers for this …

Predictions

Image: Artillery, 1911. Roger de La Fresnaye. Metropolitan Museum, New YorkIn general I'm skeptical about the ability of the social sciences to offer predictions about future social developments. (In this respect I follow some of the instincts of Oskar Morgenstern in On the Accuracy of Economic Observations.) We have a hard time answering questions like …

Correspondence, abstraction, and realism

Science is generally concerned with two central semantic features of theories: truth of theoretical hypotheses and reliability of observational predictions. (Philosophers understand the concept of semantics as encompassing the relations between a sentence and the world: truth and reference. This understanding connects with the ordinary notion of semantics as meaning, in that the truth conditions …

Polling and social knowledge

Here's a pretty interesting graphic from Pollster.com:As you can see, the graph summarizes a large number of individual polls measuring support for the two major party candidates from January 1 to October 26. The site indicates that it includes all publicly available polls during the time period. Each poll result is represented with two markers …

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