Undisputed Knowledge

7 November 2008 at 7:10 am 21 comments

| Lasse Lien |

Someone recently had the nerve to ask me for examples of undisputed knowledge generated from the social sciences. I.e., things we “know” that are both uncontroversial and does not require a lot of assumptions that are themselves in dispute (or not always true). . . .

I must admit that it was surprisingly (embarrassingly) difficult to come up with something that would qualify a strict interpretation of these criteria. Drawing a blank and under pressure to save face, I suggested that perhaps there would be universal agreement that there is nothing we can universally agree on. But then I realized that this would be an example of the liars paradox. I mean, it’s a logical impossibility that we can all agree that we cannot agree on anything.

So I guess my heroic defense of the social sciences boiled down to the claim that we can agree on only one thing, which unfortunately is a logical impossibility. . . .

Entry filed under: - Lien -, Ephemera, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

Halo Alert My Research Assistant Thinks This Is Funny

21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Santesson-Wilson  |  7 November 2008 at 7:35 am

    Ah, that dreaded question… But wouldn’t you say that Arrow’s impossiblity theorem is an example of something that is both true and non-trivial?

  • 2. Lasse  |  7 November 2008 at 8:02 am

    A good candidate, Peter. I know I would agree, but I am not so sure that everyone else would. For example some would probably claim that as a pure mathematical result it should not even be considered relevant.

  • 3. Neel  |  7 November 2008 at 8:06 am

    Paul Samuelson was once challenged by the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to “name one proposition in all of the social sciences which is both true and non-trivial.”

    Several years later, Samuelson replied: “comparative advantage. That it is logically true need not be argued before a mathematician; that it is not trivial is attested to by the thousands of important and intelligent men who have never been able to grasp the doctrine for themselves, or to believe it after it was explained to them.”

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  7 November 2008 at 8:08 am

    Neel, our buddies at orgtheory.net discussed this case a while back:

    For economists, the problem is that most of our propositions are “obvious” or even trivial, once stated clearly. For sociologists, the problem is that most of theirs aren’t true. :-)

  • 5. Lasse  |  7 November 2008 at 8:24 am

    Aha. So my friend set me up. I suspect he knew about the Samuelson-Ulam exchange. My revenge will be merciless.
    Anyway, I feel a lot better now that I know that Samuelson had problems with the question too.

  • 6. Peter Klein  |  7 November 2008 at 8:26 am

    What if you were asked the same question not about social sciences more generally, but about strategic management and organization theory specifically? That’s a tougher nut to crack. :-)

  • 7. Lasse  |  7 November 2008 at 8:34 am

    How about this one:
    “The various stakeholders in and around organizations always have imperfectly aligned interests”
    No, wait, while probably true, I guess it is pretty trivial.

  • 8. Neel  |  7 November 2008 at 8:53 am

    Thanks Peter for the link. I’ll read their discussion.

    Samuelson mentioned this story in a paper he gave in 1969. The funny thing, if I may say so, is that Samuelson may be one of “the thousands of important and intelligent men who have never been able to grasp the doctrine for themselves.” Indeed, a reinterpretation of Ricardo’s theory was put forward a few years back by Roy Ruffin and Andrea Maneschi which, IMHO, is the ‘correct’ interpretation of Ricardo’s four numbers. (Andrea Maneschi “The True Meaning of David Ricardo’s Four Magic Numbers”, Journal of International Economics, 62, 2004, pp. 433-443). The less funny thing is that Maneschi arrived at this reinterpretation just a few years after writing an albeit superb book on the history of comparative advantage in which he defined comparative advantage in the traditional way.

    I’m fascinated by the fact that economists have misunderstood what is arguably one of the most famous theories of their science for more than 130 years!

  • 9. bobvis  |  7 November 2008 at 9:50 am

    I think Peter Klein (or someone) posted a Feynman clip a while back making the same critique. Feynman said that the problem was that we didn’t have any laws.

    I will nominate Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage for upgrading to law status.

    It is certainly non-trivial. Many students and almost all politicians don’t understand it.

    It is uncontroversial among those who do understand it.

    It doesn’t require intricate assumptions.

    It is always true.

  • 10. Lasse  |  7 November 2008 at 10:13 am

    One could argue, I suppose, that while the logic of comparative advantage is impeccable, it’s predictive power is less than perfect. If not, Krugman wouldn’t be going to Sweden soon.

  • 11. Bob V  |  7 November 2008 at 10:28 am

    Good point.

    I was going to suggest something like classical and operant conditioning, but that lies in psychology rather than *social* science. http://www.wagntrain.com/OC/

    Also, a human need not always operate per those rules.

    I fear we really are lawless anarchists. Perhaps that is why we feel so comfortable blogging.

  • 12. Brian Pitt  |  7 November 2008 at 3:44 pm

    How about diminishing marginal returns and Weberian social action.

  • 13. Rafe Champion  |  7 November 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will).

    The law of unintended consequences (just a corollary of Murphy’s I suppose).

    The laws of supply and demand (ceteris paribus). You have to allow the “other things equal” clause because even the best laws that we have in the natural sciences operate as tendencies or propensities and they can be masked or over-ridden by other factors, like the apple that does not fall because it is glued onto the tree.

  • 14. srp  |  8 November 2008 at 3:50 am

    Robert Lucas has nominated the relationship between monetary growth and the rate of inflation. If you use the full range of data across countries over time, you get a great fit to a linear relationship. It’s neither trivial (in fact often disbelieved) nor based on a host of assumptions.

  • 15. Rafe Champion  |  8 November 2008 at 4:31 am

    How about Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong it will)?
    A corollary is the law of unintended consequences.

    The laws of supply and demand (ceteris paribus)?
    The “other things equal” is necessary because laws in the natural sciences are tendencies or propensities which can be masked or frustrated, as when an apple does not fall because it is firmly glued to the tree.

  • 16. bobvis  |  8 November 2008 at 9:01 am

    diminishing marginal returns

    What about telephones, fax machines, or operating systems? The more copies you have, the more they are worth.

    I also considered the law of supply and demand, but do they always hold?

    People tend to avoid the cheapest wine on a list–using a heuristic of “the cheapest must be bad” rather than due to any other quality indicators. Also, we have Giffen goods.

    The law of supply doesn’t seem to hold either because companies practically speaking produce to forecast rather than to a particular price.

  • 17. anon  |  8 November 2008 at 1:36 pm

    The assumptions on which social sciences are built aren’t really assumptions in the traditional sense.
    TCE, for example, assumes bounded rationality and opportunsim. I appreciate that others have disputed this, but I think these assumptions can be more accurately described as variables. The presence of opportunism and bounded rationality indicates applicability of TCE.

  • 18. Brian Pitt  |  8 November 2008 at 7:28 pm


    No, my (and your) total utility decreases with each additional unit of anything that I consume – irrespective of the technology in question.

  • 19. bobvis  |  9 November 2008 at 8:13 am

    Ah, I didn’t know you meant with respect to any particular individual person. Making that assumption, you may be right.

  • 20. Bo  |  9 November 2008 at 3:20 pm

    What if the unit you consume is knowledge?

  • 21. KG  |  10 November 2008 at 2:08 pm

    “People tend to avoid the cheapest wine on a list–using a heuristic of “the cheapest must be bad” rather than due to any other quality indicators.”

    Pretty big fan of “Two-Buck Chuck” myself . . .

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