The author

Wolfgang Streeck, born in 1946, works on political economy and economic sociology. He began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1988 and was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin in 1993. Streeck also held visiting professorships at various international universities before being appointed Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in 1995.


EditSocial sciences: Between theory and intuition

Social sciences: Between theory and intuition

What do political leaders need to know about the world in order to be able to govern it properly? And who can and should tell them? This is where the social sciences come into play. But while explanations of past events seem to be somewhat uninteresting for politics, predictions are difficult to make. Nevertheless, we can’t deny the impact and the usefulness of the social sciences.

by Wolfgang Streeck; in: MaxPlanckResearch 4/10

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The most ambitious goal of modern social sciences is to develop theories that explain observed facts as the effects of their causes. Why have birth rates been declining for decades, why is voter participation dropping everywhere in Europe and why do large portions of Africa remain undeveloped? Politicians, however, as people of action, are interested in explanations only when what is being explained has practical significance for them, allowing the causes claimed by the theory to be influenced by political means in such a way that their effects are changed in a desired direction.

A theory that traces declining performance in school to accelerated biological development in youth may be true or false, but it holds no interest for political leaders (unless it could be used to release the government from responsibility). It would be a different story if the explanation were increased class sizes or, say, the elimination of grades for personal conduct: in these cases, the determined cause can be used as a lever – by the government, to improve student performance, or by the opposition, to hold those in charge accountable.

Many scientists consider the ability to make predictions to be the defining feature of a good theory

Unlike explanations, politicians are almost always interested in predictions. These, too, are based on theories and are, in principle, also explanations, but of future states rather than present or past states. Many scientists, including some social scientists, consider the ability to make predictions to be the real mark of a good theory. Since politicians must continually bet on the future, they hold a similar view.

Thus, those who, as scientists, promise information about how much the economy will grow or shrink in the coming year, which occupations will see the highest growth rates in the next ten years, how many additional births extra parental benefits will encourage, or which new electoral candidate might propel his party forward, can expect not only an attentive ear, but also extensive financial contributions from governments and political parties.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suspect that the ability of the social sciences to predict the future is not only currently and coincidentally, but also fundamentally limited. “Why did no one see this coming?” asked the Queen during a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, referring to the global financial crisis. The researchers, as the representatives of their own interests, could have responded: Because too little was invested in research. But not even economists were that hard-nosed back then; the shock was apparently too great.

In early 2008, the six biggest German economic research institutes were still on average predicting economic growth of 1.6 percent for 2009. In April 2009, they revised their forecasts to minus 4.1 percent, with extreme values of “significantly more than minus 3.0” to minus 5.0 percent. A catastrophe? Today, forecasts are being merrily bandied about again – right down to the exact tenth of a percent, as always. And politicians gladly accept them and quote them as if nothing ever happened.

A better answer to the Queen’s question would have been: some did see it coming, as any event is always predicted by a few people if there are enough people making predictions about it. After all, someone usually wins the lottery, too – and twice a week, at that. In both situations, a person can be right without having known anything.

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