After observing that lots and lots of genes can interact to determine a particular phenotype, Razib asks some good questions about Social Science:
I’ve been thinking about this when it comes social phenomena. Much of the verbal treatment presupposes a few large effect explanatory variables; but what if that’s not correct? What if most social phenomena are contingent upon thousands of small effect predictors? How are you going to talk about this? And since we don’t know the “gene” unit of social phenomena where do you even start? Of course quantitative social scientists focus on phenomena which do have independent variables of big effect; but most of the action might not be low hanging fruit, but rather dispersed in the canopy.
I’ll just observe that underlying any gene explanation, even ones that have many, many causal genes, is genetic theory (“One explanation to rule them all”) itself. When social scientists are trying to describe a particular behavior (e.g. why Davis undergrads go to The Graduate on Friday nights) then they may have to go after a multitude of explanations. If they’re trying to describe a type of behavior (e.g. demand for alcoholic beverages), this may not be the case.
UPDATE: I wrote this as a comment below, but I thought it fit better up here:
“I think his critique confuses a couple of things. First of all, there are several levels of abstraction even in the hard sciences. Chemists don’t reduce everything they study into sub-atomic behaviors and certainly biologist and geneticists don’t. Even if everything can be reduced, sometimes the emergent behaviors are so complex we, with our feeble minds, have to strip some of the complexity away. In other words, chemist *could* talk about sub-atomic behaviors of their chemicals — which represent billions of interactions between billions of sub-atomic particles — but they don’t, mostly because they, being human, aren’t suited for it.
The other thing he seems confused by, and this may be related to the first confusion, is the nature of social science. We’re not about predicting particular behaviors. We’re about predicting types of behaviors. Sometimes you hear a critique of economics suggesting we’re bad at predicting business cycles and so we don’t know much about business cycles. This is clearly false, we know a bunch about business cycles just as chemist know a bunch about specific chemical reactions. Do chemist not know chemistry because they can’t predict the velocity of a particular molecule during a reaction? Do they not know chemistry because they can’t predict the exact timing when a particular reaction will take place between two molecules (or if it will happen at all)? These questions are funny because we wouldn’t even suggest chemists should know these particular things.
I guess I’m saying social science is about general patterns of social interaction. This upsets people who want us to be seers.”