AN OPEN SET OF OUTCOMES

Today I want to say something that amounts to little more than a good bitch about an issue of relevance only to academics (and even then, often only marginally so). You've been warned.

I hate rational choice-based social science research. I really do. Rational choice models, like 99% of what social scientists do, are simply an outdated technique stolen from economics and ham-fistedly rearranged to accomodate non-economic behavior. Constantly dealing with rational choice-based political science is probably the most irritating part of what I do in a professional setting.

Rational choice has its place. It does. It really does. But that place is not "everywhere" and at all times. Unfortunately that is the place it appears to have assumed. I despise it because rational choice social science is a rigged system that plays to the basest Awe of Science and Big Numbers in uninformed people and usually amounts to no more, in my opinion, than unfalsifiable pseudoscience.

The inherent flaw is the idea (implicitly encouraged by some practitioners but explicitly stated by others) that everything can be quantified. We all understand where the Prisoners' Dilemma falls apart – if the crooks are Mafiosos, they're not going to talk. They value Not Dying more than Utility Maximization. Rational choice research too often picks up at this point and, like a snake-oil salesman, soothingly tells you not to worry because Fear of Dying can be incorporated into your model as a latent variable.

The second I read something and see a "utility" variable (or, even more disingenuously, a quantitative variable used as a "proxy" for utility) I realize that it has become safe to stop reading. It is usually a cheap effort to continue applying a rational choice framework to a situation to which it does not apply. Far, far too often these arguments quickly reduce to tautologies.

If Frank is a Union plumber and he has a choice between the pro-Union Democratic candidate and anti-Union Republican, rational choice theory suggests quite obviously that he will choose the candidate who maximizes his personal utility. Fine. If Frank does choose the Democrat, then everything works out swell. Unfortunately sometimes Frank chooses the Republican, and that's when the bullshit starts to fly. Start making up "qualitative" variables and "measures of utility" and, voila, you've got a published paper.

You see, if we add in a variable for "social conservatism" (either a fabricated measure made from sunshine and farts or a "stand-in" like self-reported church attendance) and suddenly Frank's Republicanism is Rational After All. Amazing!

Any 18 year-old who has passed an Intro to Logic class knows about Moving Goalposts as an inherently flawed rhetorical technique – i.e., Our justification for invading Iraq was WMD, but if we don't find any then our justification was Liberating the Iraqi People, but if they resent our presence then our justification was Ties to Al-Qaeda, but if there were none then our justification was X or Y or Z. This is essentially what the "turn it into a variable" game does in rational choice. We arrogantly assume that we know Frank's decision must be rational, so if he makes a decision which appears irrational based on our theory we are simply looking at the wrong variable. So change the variable until we find one that works in our model to "prove" just how rationally Frank is acting.

This is the Webster's definition of a tautology. Such logic assumes its own conclusions – that individuals act rationally is both the conclusion and the basic premise of rational choice models. Frank will choose the candidate who maximizes his utility. We thought, from his Union membership, that the Democrat would be the choice. But we were wrong: apparently the Republican is the candidate who maximizes his utility. How do we know? Because that's the one he chose. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how often this logic presents itself or is implied in research I read.

It gives me the feeling that researchers create a hypothesis, do some hesitation wound-style "pre-testing" research, and then go back to create their model and choose their variables once they see the results. The end result is a bunch of cocky assholes who gloat about the glories or rational choice, the perfect theory that essentially Explains Everything. Whenever they are wrong, they simply add a new variable that will give them the conclusion they want and start over. Thereby can this simple theory, originally intended to explain a narrow range of economic decisions, be made to explain the entirety of individual and collective human behavior.

And don't even get me started about the New Coat of Paint technique of calling it "bounded rationality" to milk 10 additional years of publications out of a stale idea.

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12 Responses to “AN OPEN SET OF OUTCOMES”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I am completely on board with this rant. I've also found this problem in plenty of psychological or even philosophical contexts, as well. (Not ivory tower-style, ex nihilo pontification philosophy, which has its own set of pitfalls) I, likewise, hate it.

  2. Mike Says:

    I don't know if you are into this critique, but there was this awesome post on Game Theory/Rational Choice (and the PD) at this crit theory board, that used Kant and Deleuze to punch not so obvious holes in the Utility assumptions:

    http://antigram.blogspot.com/2007/05/sharks-infest-waters-this-reductive.html

    I can't speak to Political Economy stuff – I assume they have to assume a voter can't cast an irrational vote, given the costs of voting – but I know macroeconomics is currently really crazy with perfect rationality throughout time with perfect knowledge etc. etc. etc. It feels navel-gazing, that "have just walked in a circle" feeling you described.

  3. Chris Says:

    Most academic writing is a scam, doesn't prove much in relation to "big words" and egotistical self pats on the back, and isn't very realistic in comparison to the actual world. This is where ideas like pre-emptive war comes in. Yeah that worked well, the reverse domino theory! There is some academic writing that proves something or is interesting, but it seems like most of the time it is a waste of time or a run around in a circle. They prove what they want to prove, even if it doesn't make sense.

  4. Chris Says:

    Also, the English subject's version of wacky academic writing is called "literary crtiticism". I took this class last semester, and it is a miracle I didn't kill myself. If you think political science academic writings are insane and unrealistic, check this out some time. It is actually even more out of touch, if you can believe this.

  5. KAJ Says:

    I LOVE YOU, MAN.

    Seriously, that? (*pointing up*) Is why I bailed on my beautiful prospective academic career in political science. Well said, sir.

  6. John Says:

    I like your argument, and agree with what you say. As a 'hard' scientist, we base most things on experiments that have appropriate controls, which are much harder to get for social scientists.

    So I have one question: you say that the underlying premise for rational choice theory, that you can quantify everything, is bunk. But you also say that there is a place for rational choice theory, just not everywhere.

    So where are the places where you think Rational choice theory should NOT be accepted as a paradigm? Are they A) where identity of the variables are unknown, B) where estimates for the magnitudes of the variables are uncertain, or C) where the Exact magnitudes of the variables are uncertain?

    To me, there are some things that should NEVER be even attempted to be quantified! For example, how much could I pay you to take your only child's life?

  7. John Says:

    I like your argument, and agree with what you say. As a 'hard' scientist, we base most things on experiments that have appropriate controls, which are much harder to get for social scientists.

    So I have one question: you say that the underlying premise for rational choice theory, that you can quantify everything, is bunk. But you also say that there is a place for rational choice theory, just not everywhere.

    So where are the places where you think Rational choice theory should NOT be accepted as a paradigm? Are they A) where identity of the variables are unknown, B) where estimates for the magnitudes of the variables are uncertain, or C) where the Exact magnitudes of the variables are uncertain?

    To me, there are some things that should NEVER be even attempted to be quantified! For example, how much could I pay you to take your only child's life?

  8. John Says:

    I like your argument, and agree with what you say. As a 'hard' scientist, we base most things on experiments that have appropriate controls, which are much harder to get for social scientists.

    So I have one question: you say that the underlying premise for rational choice theory, that you can quantify everything, is bunk. But you also say that there is a place for rational choice theory, just not everywhere.

    So where are the places where you think Rational choice theory should NOT be accepted as a paradigm? Are they A) where identity of the variables are unknown, B) where estimates for the magnitudes of the variables are uncertain, or C) where the Exact magnitudes of the variables are uncertain?

    To me, there are some things that should NEVER be even attempted to be quantified! For example, how much could I pay you to take your only child's life?

  9. John Says:

    I like your argument, and agree with what you say. As a 'hard' scientist, we base most things on experiments that have appropriate controls, which are much harder to get for social scientists.

    So I have one question: you say that the underlying premise for rational choice theory, that you can quantify everything, is bunk. But you also say that there is a place for rational choice theory, just not everywhere.

    So where are the places where you think Rational choice theory should NOT be accepted as a paradigm? Are they A) where identity of the variables are unknown, B) where estimates for the magnitudes of the variables are uncertain, or C) where the Exact magnitudes of the variables are uncertain?

    To me, there are some things that should NEVER be even attempted to be quantified! For example, how much could I pay you to take your only child's life?

  10. John Says:

    Sorry about the multiple posts! had trouble with the post button. By the way, I am retarded.

  11. nice Says:

    http://www.nicebrust.com/

  12. Addy Says:

    OK, this was sent to me two years after the fact, but I still need to say: WORD.

    I did poli sci as an undergrad, and I KNEW rational choice was a tautolgy, but I didn't have the methodological background to explain why. I gave up in annoyance and haven't thought much about it since.

    In the intervening years, I've read a bit of cognitive neuroscience, which has ya know, empirical data and stuff. It's been clearly demonstrated that people do not make decisions "rationally", and in fact, the more stress they're under the more emotional they get. Given that evidence it's high time the social sciences tossed out the Rational Actor model.