Ed Glaeser on the nascent social sciences

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser writes cogently in this article in Harvard magazine about how nascent the social sciences really are. Formal modeling and reliance on data driven research has only been the case for social scientists for less than a century. In the grand scheme of knowledge production and academic progress, this is not very long at all. Glaeser's article is worth the short read, but here are some passages worth quoting.

As data quality has improved, social scientists have moved beyond facts and correlations to the deeper quest for causality.

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Good social-science experimental research first proliferated in psychology labs. Economists followed the psychologists by creating labs that tested (and often rejected) the predictions that game theory made concerning behavior in markets and auctions. But there is only so much that laboratory experiments can teach us about the long-term impact of having good neighbors or the functioning of a large, real market.

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The adoption of experimental methods and improved data quality have, in turn, helped generate the third major social-science trend—the increasing irrelevance of traditional field boundaries. Empirical approaches are far more likely than theoretical edifices to be common across fields.

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Social science is changing rapidly, as better data and real experiments replace the worldly philosophy of the past. Yet that change means that nineteenth-century field definitions feel increasingly obsolete.