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The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Science 
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Post The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Science
Please see previous discussion at The Speakeasy, "The New Phrenologists"

The following is cross posted from Please go there to follow the links.

The "New Phrenologists" and the Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Science

Over at the Heinlein Society's Nexus Forum (if you're not a member get over there and sign up!) I posted some selections from an article at The Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson, "The New Phrenology." Subtitled "How liberal psychopundits understand the conservative brain," the piece goes into some detail about the numerous news stories most of us have probably seen lately, with titles like that of Chris Mooney's book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality.

With that background, I want to make explicit that this is not a political post, nor is it an analysis of the psychology of any particular group. The meta point of "The New Phrenology" has been made powerfully by a number of others--the current state of the "social sciences" is barely scientific, after 100 years or more of effort. The mere gloss of scientism is now provided by colored pictures of brain images, publication in peer reviewed journals and the use, and misuse, of statistics.

One hundred years ago Robert A. Heinlein was about to turn five and people of a wide variety of political and philosophical views, from Freud to Wells to Woodrow Wilson, believed that economics, psychology and sociology were taking their first firm steps toward becoming true sciences, where national and world economies would be managed in steady prosperity without booms and busts, criminals and the mentally ill would be reformed or healed through drugs and therapy, and populations would be managed toward happiness through education, advertising and techniques like mass hypnosis and official propaganda. Eventually, all of these efforts would be put on a firm base of physics and neuroscience and mathematical statistics, with formulas fed into computing devices and the right answers for societal management coming out.

These ideas can be seen clearly in many of Heinlein's early works. Indeed, the Future History takes place against a background where this social management is often simply assumed and only mentioned en passim when necessary. In other instances, it is made explicit as an important part of the story, as with the extensive explanation of economic management and Monroe Alpha Cliff's work near the beginning of Beyond This Horizon or the debate about using mass hypnosis to recondition the populace toward freedom at the end of "If This Goes On--". In Methusalah's Children there is mention of statistically rating the impact of words, and the strategic planting of useful rumors based on mathematical formulae. For a good short explication of this idea under the general heading of "social engineering" see the "Logos" section of this article on "If This Goes On--" by Bill Patterson.

Here in 2012 I would argue that these fields have made very limited progress toward being "science." In economics, the worldwide Big Bust of the last four years provides compelling evidence that legions of Ph.D. economists are subject to forces far beyond their control, their manipulations of money and interest too much, too soon or too little, too late. Criminals are still with us, in plenty, and while the soma of a wide variety of "anti-depressants" masks the symptoms of perhaps 20% of the American populace, all the billions and indeed, trillions of dollars expended on "scientific research" into education, reform of prisoners and the proper raising of children seems to have merely, mostly maintained the status quo ante in these areas.

But back to "The New Phrenology." Mostly believing that the mind is just a useful, or useless fiction, the reductionists have deployed the truly wonderful tools of modern medical imaging in the study of the brain and declared the colored pictures taken therefrom the answer to a broad number of questions. Why do people do what they do? Hook them to a forest of electrodes and ask them question or show them some naughty pictures, see what lights up, gather some stats and you've got yourself a peer reviewed journal article that will help further your career path in the Academe!

I do not claim that this kind of study is necessarily useless, biased, wasteful or harmful. It may be that discoveries from these techniques really will result in a better life for us and our children.

So far though, what we've got is that drug users' pleasure centers light up when they use, that brain scan color pictures prove that there is no free will, and that political"conservatives" are a fearful, authoritarian bunch. I don't claim to know the entire field--I just read the newspapers, and that's what I'm seeing.

It's a long, long way from the vision of Heinlein and others, during those early, heady days, that all of this research would eventually give us scientific solutions to social problems.

Another side of Heinlein, the rugged proponent of individualism, liberty and the generally untamable nature of Man, would probably be delighted at these developments. So far, that's the side that seems to be winning in the real world.

"There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk 'his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor' on an outcome dubious. Those who fail the challenge are merely overgrown children, can never be anything else."

Thu May 17, 2012 12:14 pm
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Post Re: The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Scie
I doubt that even millions of dollars, let alone trillions, have been spent on researching how to reform prisoners. The USAian attitude is a neo-Victorian throw-away-the-key. I see no evidence that the American prison system values reform in the slightest.

A little more money may have been spent on research into education and child rearing, but I seriously doubt it amounts to as much as $100 million a year combined. Worldwide. A handful of liberal professors publishing papers to each other does not constitute a governmental or societal commitment. Official education policy in the USA is limited to enforcing standardized testing. I see some more coherent and thoughtful efforts in more socialist western countries, e.g. Scandinavia, Canada. But compared to Heinlein's vision of scientific development of these areas, we haven't come close to trying.

I do not consider research into the chemical and electrical function of the brain to fall into those categories. Certainly billions have been expended on PET, CAT, MRI, fMRI devices and research, but they have not been applied to practical methods of learning or behavioral reform as far as I can see, only in studies of the if-I-poke-his-elbow-this-brain-center-lights-up type.

I do think it would be an interesting conversation to contrast Heinlein's earlier utopias based on social science with his later paeans to to individualism that pretty much eviscerated the notion of coordinated social reform. My terminology when it gets to politics is very inexact and some better informed members can hopefully grok my intent and reword that last statement to be more accurate.

Thu May 17, 2012 2:59 pm
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Post Re: The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Scie
All my life I've tended to suspend disbelief and critical thinking while immersed in Heinlein's books and just go along for the ride and enjoy the "ripping good yarns." It hadn't occurred to me that Heinlein's respect for individualism might clash with any utopian reliance on advances in social science he might have presented in his books. (Full disclosure: I hold a BA in physics and an MA in clinical psychology, so I've had somewhat more exposure than the average person to the methods of at least one physical and one social science. I claim no particular competence in either.)

The general feeling I get from Heinlein is that of what I'll call "human exceptionalism," an attitude that we as individuals and as a species have the capacity to dramatically improve our lot in life through the application of intellectual talents and Competence. As enticing as he makes it seem in his stories, I've come to the conclusion that it's harder than he makes it look, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if we never manage to accomplish a fraction of the benefits he helped us envision, most especially colonizing other planets/moons. Some of that pessimism is due to the increasing amount of evidence accruing each day that cooperating for a common good in any societally significant numbers is a laughably remote possibility, and the hope of same is dwindling with each new war, political election, and legislative vote.

But more fundamentally, I now see our intellectual and adaptive capabilities as a species as quite tightly bounded by our physical limitations. We are incapable of directly appreciating complex systems; we *must* simplify to have any appreciation at all of what's going on. Hence we developed statistics (defined as a mathematically precisely line drawn between an unwarranted assumption and a foregone conclusion), analogies, approximations, even the pursuit of science itself. There would be no need for scientific endeavor if we were capable of just directly perceiving how the universe works. Our senses give us the ability to personally experience a very tiny range of physical phenomena; all the rest of our understanding must come from the use of tools both logical and physical. Our brains are slow and very imprecise data processors (e.g. optical and auditory illusions; hormonal and other chemical impacts on rational thought; the vast imperfection of memory). We are capable of posing but not answering the most important questions of our lives (Where was I before I was born? What happens to me when I die? What is the purpose of life? What should I do? What, where, and why is the universe?) so we have had to invent religion to quiet our existential dread. Our mastery of our environment is far from complete.

This may sound impossibly depressing to some, but for me it just Is. Just because an idea is abhorrent, that doesn't make it false. It also isn't an excuse to stop striving to be the best we can be. I think it's inarguable that we've accomplished some remarkable things as a species, and I have no idea how much further we are capable of going. Just sitting around moping about our limitations isn't much fun, so personally, I prefer to accept them and move on. For example, I think there's a good chance we can figure out what dark matter and dark energy are, and I hope that happens within my lifetime; I'm really curious. In the meantime, I'll let Heinlein's words light up the pleasure centers in my brain for any neuroscientist to see.

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

Thu May 17, 2012 4:12 pm
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Post Re: The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Scie
Thank you both for these thoughtful responses.

Peter: I did some searching around and found it very difficult to get hard data, but I'm going to stand by my statement on spending at least to the extent of at least $1 trillion spent on social science reserach (in say, 2001 dollars) into mental health and psychology, education methods and practices, sociological topics like reasons for poverty and family violence, and criminology--over the last 100 years, which is the period I was (implicitly) referring to. I read somewhere a few years ago that the Feds had doled out over $1 billion since the late 1960s just for research on reading program effectiveness. Not actually teaching reading. Unfortunately I can't find the article now, but it doesn't strike me as unreasonable over 40+ years.

I don't think social science research money is all wasted or ineffective. In some respects, things have gotten better in society. But the human being has proven far more difficult to classify, place and pacify than expected.

Dan: What a great short summary of the human condition...I agree with most all of it. I don't think we invented religion to quiet our existential dread but heh, that's the fun of the discussion. I didn't put this in the fairly short piece here, but we have to remember that RAH was writing commercial fiction during the peak of his social engineering interests, and he was perhaps motivated to include cool neato stuff that he didn't necessarily believe was that likely! The works I reference were not futurism, they were novels.

Looking at Bill's wonderful biography, there is plenty of reason to think he did believe in the great potential of some of these things to lead to a much better society. Still, he doesn't seem to have been a starry-eyed optimist, either. My subject line here may be too braod in saying "Heinlein's Vision" but there is some justification for it.

"There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk 'his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor' on an outcome dubious. Those who fail the challenge are merely overgrown children, can never be anything else."

Thu May 17, 2012 4:55 pm
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Post Re: The Failure (So Far) of Heinlein's Vision of Social Scie
In the 'Future History' Heinlein states we're still barbarians.
Civilization doesn't start until 2040. I should just live long enough to see it!

Sun Mar 10, 2013 5:13 pm
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