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

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



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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The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford

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The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford
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22 thoughts on “The End of Social Science as We Know it | Brian Epstein | TEDxStanford technology to life replicating the waste”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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?

  11. "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.

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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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