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The Hubris of Social Science

I'd like a dollop of ketchup on that paradigm.
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(Photo: JIANG HONGYAN/Shutterstock)

(Photo: JIANG HONGYAN/Shutterstock)

In the 19th century, the world birthed social science. In the 19th century, the world birthed the nation state. How social science could help the nation state was debatable. How the nation state could help social science was beyond reproach.

Theodore Porter navigates this Scylla and Charybdis. The expert displaces the dilettante. But the dilettante doesn't exit the bureaucratic stage. The dilettante insists that the social science can't account for all the quirks of human behavior. The expert insists that good social science will solve all the world's ills.

Thus the pendulum swings, to this day, between dilettante and expert. Social science will re-make the city and eradicate poverty. Social science will re-make the city and exacerbate poverty. Command the markets. Let the markets command.

In the 19th century, Pittsburgh birthed the perfect ketchup:

Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.

The author scripting this food science battle is none other than Malcolm Gladwell. Henry J. Heinz perfected ketchup long before the world perfected social science. Gladwell sells the efficacy of social science with the success story of Heinz ketchup.

Theodore Porter sells the efficacy of Malcolm Gladwell with the success story of the nation state. Does that make social science a ruse, an instrument of government power? I say nay. Each time the pendulum swings between hubris and laissez faire, social science gets smarter.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.