The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford technology to life replicating the waste

by alsaCEMusic



Philosopher Brian Epstein warns that without significant changes, social sciences as we know it will become irrelevant and obsolete. His research on the metaphysics of the social world lead him to ask fundamental questions such as what are languages, what are banks, or artifacts? Why should we care? Because according to Epstein, asking and answering such questions are the only way we can fix the foundations of social sciences.

Brian Epstein received his doctorate in philosophy from Stanford University, his master’s in philosophy from Oxford University, and graduated summa cum laude with an AB in philosophy from Princeton University. Epstein’s research interests include philosophy of social science, metaphysics and philosophy of language, focusing in particular on issues in the theory of reference and the ontology of social kinds. He also has interests in conceptual schemes, the philosophy of music and the philosophy of economics. Between degree programs, he worked at a number of technology startups and consulting firms. His interests outside philosophy include music and sound production, hiking and photographing ducks.

Epstein is the author of The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, Oxford University Press, 2015.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at .

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50 comments

Dude Narima 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

10:52
Well, you can go to academia in Silicon Valley!

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kyong ku 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Brian by large accurately point out that the mainstream social science is heavily just relying on only human interactions. It's doomed to fail…see, the climate crisis, covid-19, economic disparity, social unease, etc.

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Patrick Pointaire 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

What is a social science for you? I am a social anthropologist. As such, what is a group, what is a culture, what is a blockchain, and so on are genuinly what we study…

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dump man 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

That Is real provoking though

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ˈMɛtəSɛlf 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

A Markov boundary encompasses a context that's sufficient to predict the variance of a given agent who's situated within a network.

There's no need to abandon the primacy of the individual.

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lordofmythings1 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

A social scientist (anthropologist) named Gillian Tett predicted the financial crisis and wrote a best selling book about it called Fool's Gold. And many social science perspectives, like Actor Network Theory, decentralize human beings and social systems. Even old fashioned American anthropology was founded as a holistic field of study. There's more to social science than economics and social network theory.

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Joakin Molina 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

This man is a new strike of positivist technocratic and utilitarian mentality. He's saying, substantially, that social sciences shall become (they're yet in many aspects) mere functions of legalist bureaucratic objectives. No criticism, no seek for deep understanding of social realm; just mere description of items in a superficial, level, just to maintain the machine working. Dehumanizing. He's a bureucratic philosopher.

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Jay Shirley 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

The fact that they are called Social "sciences" rather than natural sciences should tell us that they are subjective, unnatural or manufactured and not based on scientific evidence or universal laws like physics. Thus we should follow of a Social model of things such as psychological disorders and social problems like drugs and crime rather than a medical or pathological one.

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Shane Miller 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

This presentation is indeed a long-winded strawman argument. Go to the wikipedia page for sociology and you will see that none of the arguments apply to sociology as an entire discipline. Anthropology and political science are also discplines which have addressed the concerns raised in the talk. Read the literature before making grand claims.

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lordblazer 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Social Scientists are increasing starting to dominate IT specifically Data Science and Data Engineering. Because it just isn't enough to know how to code in those fields. And PhDs in the Social and Political Sciences actually know what to do with the data. They know what questions to ask, and understand statistically modelling and how to relay that in a qualitative manner. Since companies want to increasingly automate. That automation has to actually work and stop operating within the literal sense. Social Sciences aren't dead. The problem right now are the institutions that don't prepare Social Scientists for this new world.

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Czeslaw Mesjasz 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Social sciences have many deficiencies but they are also based on cumulated knowledge. It takes time to learn about the weaknesses of studying society – whatever it may mean. One must gain a certain level of inter- and multi-disciplinary knowledge to reach the depth of social phenomena. For instance, the limits of language, limits of mathematics, etc. I am not impolite but this nice Professor has still to learn quite a lot. The directions of his studies are absolutely correct. Once mathematics, physics, etc. were regarded as "difficult" sciences. Social sciences based on storytelling were treated as "easy". Now we realize that situation is the opposite. As to understand society we have to know more about ourselves. And when we look at the status quo of knowledge about the human brain and cognitive processes, we can see that we are at the beginning of a long journey. Unfulfilled dreams of cybernetics, systems approach, etc. provide some valuable lessons.

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zandre hiraga 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I'm very confused, I feel like he had an idea and then didn't present it well. How is "what is it" the right questions instead of how it works when looking at the human body. Some of it isn't cells, so that's what it is, but then what are they and how do they work if they aren't cells? I'm very confused what he's talking about

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k m 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

wow, the internet is unapologetically mean. (Sorry I don't have much else to add)

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Silke Pauli 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

It isn´t true that no one was warning about the collaps of 2008. In reality it starts years earlier with the real estate bubble and the laxity of controlling this business. What does the shareholder e.g. of a finance instituion? Who are the main stockholder of a lot of trust and funds?

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João de Carvalho 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

"The stakes are huge in the social sciences." Yes they are. Basically the whole world, as humans experience it. It will be the greatest achievement of science.

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Hikashi A. Halfiah 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

"What is IT" vs "How does IT work" question?

I guess he mean social science (in the sense of theories of modeling society and economy, and maybe more) should be more like mathematics or at least theoretical physics. Mathematicians define a lot of mathematical structures, such as group, ring, topology, manifold, etc (defining the IT). Then they try to derive theorems from the definitions that was proposed (how the IT works). Then they use these collections of definitions+theorems, which we can call a "theory", to model some other mathematical (and not so mathematical) entities. For example, a mathematical analyst "modeling" a subset of function space as a countably infinite dimensional vector space, and a theoretical physicist (they can be pretty close to a mathematician, if not one themselves) modelling space-time with theory of geometric manifolds.

Similarly, social science should define more structures (the WHAT is it question) and less mechanism/process (the HOW does it work question). Actually if you define a structure "properly", that is answering the WHAT question in a very "nice" way, the HOW will follows naturally without much thought in the form of mathematical theorems with easy proofs (Spivak's hard definitions easy theorems). At least that's the stereotype of a mathematical genius' work (Ask your local mathematician about this).

Ultimately, the message is probably to ask social scientists to examine their traditional assumptions more rigorously, and see if they miss something when using those traditional assumptions. And more importantly, to be more brave in proposing new models and assumptions even when those new ones look pretty far away and strange (even weird!!) when compared to traditional ones (Redefinition can happen often in mathematics, and the newest definition can look pretty strange and alien to the traditional “more intuitive” definition).

Disclaimer: I'm not a social scientist, so there might be implicit misunderstanding about social science coming from myself.

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Stenaldo Mëhilli 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Professor Epstein’s short lecture was thought provoking and worth watching (no doubt), However I have to disagree with the idea that social
Science’s problem is the focus on people. People are the particles that form the fields which social sciences study. But these particles have something very particular, that is, we, (the people), lie and consciously so. Then we have the social scientists whom are not only presented with the difficulty of filtering those lies out —which consequently effects the quality of their observation— but also with the difficulty of managing their own bias on the phenomenon they are inspecting. Hence the end product of this generally long process fails more often than not.
More Over, some branches of social science, say Political science that I’m currently studying, barely discusses the role of people in policymaking. Instead, we spend hours on end discussing the role that  institutions, political parties and other mechanisms play in a political system. That is exactly why my country Albania looks like a perfect democracy — it has too many political parties, too many organizations that pretend to represent the civil society. But unfortunately the truth is they just pretend. If there would be a way to unbiasedly study the people who in fact own these political organizations, (courts do this when they properly work), then the Albanian democracy would look quite different to someone who never lived here.
            Sometimes, I think Social sciences are like young children whom after seeing their mom or daddy doing something only grownups can do, want to be like them immediately. I am totally blind, but I bet their facial expression changes in order to perfectly imitate their parents’ seriousness (their tone of voice certainly does). So if the relationship between social and hard sciences resembles that of children who want to drive a car just because their parents can, then we’re having considerable issues to deal with. Social sciences should not be a mean for professors to improve their hierarchical position in academia; neither should they be used by pseudo academics to gain unjustifiable research grants. Social sciences should only be in our society’s service and no dogma or fanatic belief should be allowed to stand in its way towards betterment.

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Briland Family 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

A shout out to my homies 🙂

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Sue Ridder 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Thanks for your very thought-provoking insight. Judging from the comments, you have stimulated very insightful and interesting debate – the very essence of scholarship.

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Derrick Cox 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Lots of degrees…doesn't mean one is right. One example: There seems to be some confusion for some professionals regarding “definition” within the modern social sciences community. The word “complexity” is often given the wrong meaning and context. For example, most recognize the external world as being extremely complex. Recognizing this is not the same as being competent in intellectually thinking about complex subjects, issues, or topics. Humans use both philosophical and ideological thought to measure and comprehend the real world. Philosophy is a SEARCH for what is true, while ideology is believing one has FOUND something that is true, and therefore, this “ideal” becomes incorporated into one’s belief system. Just because one has complex thoughts and ideas, this does not necessarily translate to a competent complexity in thought. The intellectual and mental dysphoria of individuals…although they may assume that complexity alone is sufficient to understanding the world…is rather a precedent to society falling into social dysphoria. The human brain has the capacity to take the complex and find ideas that simplify and change dysfunction to function. This is a greater indication of a more complete intelligence than people who…without direction, morals, or values…engage in frivolous and careless intellectualism without structure and a sure foundation. This is why simple ideas that are not corrupted, but are true, work in reality where corrupted ideas won’t. One can lead to internal happiness…the other cannot.

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Jeff Doe 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Social science is just dehumanization by oversimplification.

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Aubrey James 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

It isn't accurate that economist couldnt see the crisis. What were the economist supposed to do… Go to the private banks and beg them to stop their practices??

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DontKillAnts 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

"…if we got the human psyche perfect, we would only be understanding a fraction of the social world" So this guy rambles on about how social sciences don't ask "what is it questions" and then blows off the pursuit of understanding the building blocks of the social world, i.e. the psyche.

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John Demeritt 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Where I see Dr. Epstein as being entirely wrong is in his insistence that social sciences are not about people — that is, his argument against anthropocentrism in the social sciences. The essential flaw here is that without people, social relationships — and thus the social world we humans are primarily interested in — do not exist. We find society and how it works lodged in the relationships between people, from the micro to the macro levels. Social construction says that we create the social world through interactions that build a body of taken for granted knowledge we assume is shared among all people. People, through their interactions, create institutions and systems that further shape our interactions. In order to understand society, we have to look at the systems of systems we see in the social world around us and decide where we're going to draw the bounds around the particular systems we want to study: that defines the "what is it" question.

Where the social and physical worlds fundamentally differ is that physical systems are inherently deterministic, while social systems are subject to change by human choice. This is why sociologists and, to a lesser extent, economists, are increasingly rejecting the rational actor model: we realize that human beings are emotional and intuitive creatures with a capacity for rational thought — and that we often use that capacity for rational thought to rationalize decisions we've already made on an emotional basis. Dr. Epstein seems to suggest that to be taken seriously for policy purposes, social sciences need to be as reliably deterministic as physical sciences. The problem with that approach is that there are always outliers: people who don't fit neatly into categories that are easy for policy makers to deal with. There are also consequences to policy decisions that may not manifest themselves until long after policy decisions are taken. These may take the forms of unanticipated, unintended, undesirable and unrecognized consequences. Using the right theoretical and methodological tools, we can render more of these consequences visible — but only if we move further away from the deterministic models of science that we inherited from positivist physical science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In short, we need to embrace uncertainty as a way of looking beyond the existing social constructions blinding us to myriad alternative futures we should see but often fail to.

Helping policy makers realize the uncertain and contingent natures of the issue they're dealing with and helping them with tools to navigate the many possible policy options before them is the most certain route — at this time, at least — to making social sciences relevant to policy makers and the policies they make.

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Tanix 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Brian Epstein didn't kill himself.

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DubG9 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I encourage the presenter to read sociological literature. We do exactly what he says social science doesn't do. In addition, the presenter should not generalize the social sciences.

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Mar Hoc 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Stanford? I apologize, maybe I didn't understand something. Regardless, I recommend the narrator a basic sociology textbook, particularly the structure / action chapter.

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Deden Habibi 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Ontology

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Bianca Negron 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

How can i get into these studies?

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A N 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Nothing is going to change until you incorporate bio social sciences. Would be an understatement if i said postmodernist have not made you a laughing stock. …PS Humanities are like the clowns of academia

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I Am Unborn 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

They knew. They lied. We lied to ourselves.

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Philosopher 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Its pretty simple.. 1st Government in a vote buying scheme in the 90's forcing banks to give loans to people who could not and should not have gotten a loan THEN the inevitable Greed and banks.. they could sell those finical instruments to foreigner investors fast enough.. So basically GREED and GREED it what caused it and NOT G W Bush ,,,

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Kevin Rice 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Social sciences are not hard sciences. 1 plus 1 don't necessarily give you 2. Humans are more complex

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Noah McDaniel 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

It's hard to understand what he's getting at, but I think he's making a relevant point. I think what he's saying is that … things are more complicated than they seem. I don't know I was following him at times and other times he lost me. Philosophers concern themselves with the "substance" of concepts, so to speak. So I believe what he's getting at is that our conceptualizations of many things are overly simplistic. We think the driving forces in the economy are people, when really the driving forces of people are extremely complicated in and of itself, therefore the driving forces of the economy can't be reduced to people. It's actually everything that goes into people. I think he's speaking about a need for a better integration of social sciences.

Like when he said if you have that diagram of a business with the hierarchy of people, if you followed that in order to understand how a business works, all you have is people standing around at various business establishments. That's not a business. For some reason that's the considered the basics, the "definition" or concept of a company. A CEO with a board and a cfo, regional managers, employees, etc. And the driving forces are the relationships between these people. Not the layers beneath all those individual parts. Because after all his point was how we're failing at "what is it" questions, and as a result our "how it works" questions are suffering as well.

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richard ouvrier 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Social science is too anthropocentric, too social?

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Agustín Bertelli 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

We didn't ask what is money? that fella didn't read Marx and ALL the sociologists that talk about money like f e Giddens… wtf

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Pi Art 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

500 years ago, Copernicus was wrong. Astronomers before him are correct in not imagining a universe where people are right in the center. And in my Bachelor of Applied Science Information Technology program I do not want to take the Humanities/Social Science course.

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Peter 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

The problem with social sciences is that they have been infiltrated by Marxists who want to hijack the social sciences to give legitimacy to their manipulative propaganda.

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Juan Milano 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Peter Schiff saw it coming, moron.

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The Court Jester 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

it's already irrelevant. social science is not an emperical science. you're practically a part of a cult.

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Noah R. 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I think that Dr. Epstein really missed the point of his argument. He insists that the social sciences need to be decentralized from the human perspective, but the fact of the matter is that human life is generated through the social (referring to Mead), and to neglect this is to miss the point of the social sciences altogether. Additionally, while his "bank account" example does demonstrate the complexity of our interactions, it ignores that fact that these are included in the discussion of what it means to remove people from the system.

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Annette 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I love this talk. Thank you Brian: I will be drawing on your papers to apply some what-is-it questions to environmental philosophy. Love your work!

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Marco Rosas 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

debes leer a Callon o knorr-cetina

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Kingdom Karuwo 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I just wasted my time listening to this

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Ahmad Kamran 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

great

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Alex Plotkin 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

I have an MA in economics and an MBA so this is a topic of interest to me. Noting that, there is merit in the argument that thousands of economists failed to see the 2008 financial crisis. As such, that does speak to weaknesses of economics as a discipline. And in effect, other social sciences. There are limits to what social scientists can and can't do. Social scientists can't do experiments like physicists and, in general, create rules or laws. The late physicist Richard Feynman made that criticism. There is video on YouTube with Feynman speaking on this. However, here are some weaknesses I see in Epstein' s arguments:

1. He took one year of journal articles for his study to debunk the social sciences. Not impressed as a sample size.
2. Economists and historians have written great literature on various topics that are insightful. But business and political leaders aren't necessarily listening or care. People read less today.
3. The speaker almost imagines a world where business and political leaders are sitting at their desks waiting for social scientists to save them. Sorry. That isn't the real world.
4. Even if these improvements were made in the social sciences, greed, fear and power will always impact leadership choices. That means the improvements he advocates may not help since they may contradict these motives. These forces always impact decisions in institutions.
5. His talk gets very convoluted and excessively abstract. That leaves me skeptical. To invoke physicist Richard Feynman, solutions should be simple.
6. You still have to sell your ideas. Even if his improvements are made in these disciplines, doesn't mean business, non-profit and political leaders can or will buy in.

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Zackary Gomez 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

Very good speech but a social science major should be giving the speech and not a philosophy major

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xiongjr2001 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

my 2 cents worth. The stuff he said although valid but the title is a attention grabbing clickbait. The stuff he said (what is it vs how is it) is nothing new. Good social scientist grapple with such issues all the time, and examine it in depth before launching into their research.

Lastly, people have wrong expectations that social scientist are prophets. They are not allowed to make mistake. They are supposed to predict every problem which humanity's way. Ultimately, social scientist are not gods. They are also human beings. Like all human beings, biases and flawed data may interfere with analysis. Furthermore, social science is a branch of knowledge fragmented by many schools of thoughts. The first and foremost way to fix social science is to recognize that people who study it are neither prophets nor gods.

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Nhan Vo 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

IMAGINE, if we could LISTEN to social scientists

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Greg Drobny 23/12/2021 - 5:38 Chiều

"None of the greatest economists in the world saw it coming." Really? Nearly every economist of the Austrian School tradition saw it coming and stated it publicly. YouTube and the internet are wonderful things for finding these things out.

If you define "greatest" in really limited terms that only fit with your presuppositions, then it makes it easier to craft a narrative, I guess.

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