Theorist Trap

It seems that theorists – particularly in the social sciences, but not exclusively – have a particularly insidious trap laid for them. This trap seems to have caught and limited the greatest published minds in history, and perhaps retarded the growth of human knowledge more than any other effect.

It is hubris. It is the thought that one’s own theoretical framework is not only correct, but the *only* correct framework for understanding reality.

I was reminded of this as we watched Lord of the Ants, a NOVA episode that profiled Wilson. He developed sociobiology, which has as its basic premise the conceit that biology informs social structure. Not influences, mind you, that it informs. The episode showed a clip of Wilson watching monkeys and musing that their social structure (biological in origin), because it appears like that of humanity, must imply that humanity’s social structure is likewise biological in origin. (I am aware that not all sociobiologists take this stance today.)

Excepting, of course, that there’s such a thing as convergent evolution. Or that such requires the presumption that monkeys cannot derive social structure themselves through cognition. And so on. It reminds me of the strong inductive assertions that “all swans are white”. That assertion of universal truth worked just fine for the Europeans… until they ran into black swans Down Under. At which point they were forcibly reminded that their descriptions of reality were, inherently, incomplete.

So many theorists have accurately described some portion or aspect of reality and humanity. And then, through a blind faith in their own theory, have tried to cram all other observations into it, no matter how poorly they fit. Rather than allow the imperfectness of their theory, evidence or alternate explanations was (and continues to be) ignored. This is most grossly (and popularly) seen in the nature vs. nurture “debate”. Nature? Nurture? Why not both, simultaneously, in differing degrees?

In the social sciences, there seems to be an unfortunate tendency to want our theories to be perfect *descriptions* of reality and human situations. They are not, nor will they ever be. It is in this – not in methodology, not in reductionism, but in this – that the social sciences (no matter how positivist) veer away from the physical sciences.

George Mead seems to have recognized this, at least in part. As our world and societies become more complex, we will need to ensure that our models of them – our understanding of other people – become more complex as well.

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