Gary Gutting appears to think that policy makers give too much authority to social science in decision making. Is there really a problem of social science being over-valued in policy decisions? I doubt it. The consensus results of physical science on climate change are ignored in policy making.
Neverthless, Gutting makes several cogent critical points about the limitations of social science. Using research on teaching as an example of policy-relevant social science, he questions whether any work on the effectiveness of teaching -- or, we are to infer, other social sciences -- is sufficiently established to support major policy decisions. He thinks not, because unlike physical sciences, these sciences are unable to make and confirm precise quantitative predictions.
The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish and study separately. Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects.
So the answer would be to find ways to do more experiments, right? But Gutting doubts this will help much because whereas a neutron is a neutron is a neutron, the causal complexity of human behavior and the diversity of human settings limit the range of cases to which a given experimental result will apply.
There is a lot of truth in this. But on the question of whether we should use social science in making policy decision, Gutting fails to give a clear answer:
My conclusion is not that our policy discussions should simply ignore social scientific research.
Really? Even though Gutting seemed to be arguing that social science was not sufficiently sound to support major policy decisions? Then how should we use social science in policy making?
Given the limited predictive success and the lack of consensus in social sciences, their conclusions can seldom be primary guides to setting policy. At best, they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have.
It is unclear what Guting wants if he doesn't think social science should be ignored. Social science can only "seldom be a primary guide to policy decision making." Does this imply that occasionally it can be a primary guide? If so, when? Perhaps when there is sufficient consensus and predictive success? Then what criteria do we use to identify sufficient consensus and predictive success? And when social scientific studies can't be the "primary guides to setting policy", are they to be ignored, or can they be secondary or tertiary guides? And so on.
Gutting owes us an alternative to current uses of social science in policy making. If he thinks we should put more trust in politicians, what are the grounds for preferring the intelligence of political leaders to the results of social science? Presumably Gutting is under no illusion that politicians' predictions about policy outcomes are precise and well-confirmed. Concluding with a hope that those leaders will have "general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence" is intellectually irresponsible. Or if he meant it, insane.
My alternative would begin with the extensive literature on how scientific evidence can be synthesized and assessed for policy relevance (see here for work in medicine). We do not need to settle for empty faith in politicians.