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Life Lessons from the Dark Ages

BU philosopher says our past offers hope for future

“Science is the best method that human beings have ever invented for understanding cause and effect,” says Lee McIntyre.

In the dark ages, life was nasty, brutish, and short. Since then, advances in science and medicine have led to longer, but often still brutish, lives — for proof, just check out today’s headlines. Lee McIntyre, a research fellow with BU’s Center for Philosophy and History of Science, thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. He’s convinced that just as the scientific method helped lead us out of the Dark Ages and drastically improved medicine in the last century, it could, if properly applied to the social arena, help free us from the morass of human misery. In his latest book, Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior (MIT Press), he tells us why that isn’t happening.

“If we really understood why people act the way we do, we could make better public policy and solve a lot of social problems,” McIntyre says. “Science is the best method that human beings have ever invented for understanding cause and effect. Otherwise, we’re just speculating, or hoping.”

Unfortunately, he says, good social science is a very rare thing. Too often it is infected with ideology, from the right and the left: researchers know the answers they want and — surprise! — find them. Take gun control, the death penalty, and immigration, he says. “You find people citing the studies that back up what politically they already want to defend, rather than looking at what the studies show. Is immigration good for the American economy? Well, it is or it isn’t,” he says. “Politicians treat it as if it were a matter of conviction or political will or ideology, that just by talking about it or wishing, they can make it come out a certain way. Not true!”

In a better world, McIntyre says, social scientists would have “a propensity for being surprised by what they find and the courage to investigate where they think the results might tell them something they don’t really want to know.” As an example of such courage, he cites Gary Kleck’s work on gun control. “Kleck’s work is inspiring,” he says. “Here’s a liberal Democrat who’s not bringing politics into the work. He’s convinced that this is an empirical field, that he should gather data without knowing in advance how it’s going to turn out, and he ends up with some startling findings.” The result: both liberals and conservatives disputed aspects of his work that didn’t accord with their views.   

A philosopher, McIntyre has been waging a lonely fight for the emergence of a science of human behavior. Most philosophers of science claim that fundamental barriers separate the social sciences from the natural sciences, although they don’t have compelling arguments. “They talk about the inability to have objective inquiry,” he says. “We don’t really have objective inquiry in the natural sciences either, and those seem to be doing pretty well.” They also believe controlled experiments in the social sciences are impossible. Look at astronomy, McIntyre retorts; we can’t perform controlled experiments in other galaxies, yet no one denies astronomy is a science.

Then there’s the argument about free will, McIntyre says, which should make predicting our behavior impossible. “Still, human behavior, for whatever reason, remains predictable,” he says. “If we have free will, we don’t seem to use it in ways that affect social science.”

In short, McIntyre isn’t interested in excuses, especially from fellow philosophers. He wants action. Mainly, he wants to see social sciences adopt the rigor of the natural sciences. “A science of human behavior can lead the way out of the current mess of unreason and tragedy that hangs over human affairs,” McIntyre writes in his book. “The application of our highest form of reason, science, to the study of our social problems is our best hope for salvation.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.