This book has some brilliance. In the next to last chapter, “Going Cognitive: Tools for Rebuilding the Social Sciences,” the authors McCubbins and Turner accuse the social sciences of being folk sciences. In this passage tacitly, and later explicitly, they accuse social scientists as being primitive, unreformed inductivists, the original armchair thinkers:

[C]onsciousness itself is extremely weak. What we see in the Cartesian theater of our consciousness — is not so much thought, but shadows on the cave wall. They are cartoons to keep us going. Advanced human cognition has the exceptional power of “taking things for granted,” a power so comprehensive and strong that it looks more like an evolutionary design feature than a bug. Why would we take things for granted? Because attention is scarce. We need to behave effectively, efficiently, and in a fit manner in niches that call for decision and action. What on Earth would be the evolutionary advantage of having to calculate how to see during each instance of sight, or reaffirm object permanence each time we see an object? Taking most things about our own thought for granted is efficient, but is absolutely wrong for building a science. We do not need to understand much about our thought if what we want to do is act. But it is exactly what we need to understand if what we want to do is explain why and how we act as we do.  (p.389)


Two problems with the book’s message.

1) Ironically, in this passage evolution is mentioned. But the authors do not embrace evolution fully (and its history of behavioral research), or they would have clearly outlined Nobel Prize winner Niko Tinbergen’s 4 explanations (developmental mechanism, functional mechanism, original evolutionary role, and current evolutionary role).

It is clear that social scientists, especially those with a cognitive scientific grounding, are only interested in the first two of Tinbergen’s explanations, which are proximate mechanisms, and not the second two explanations, which involve ultimate, evolutionary mechanisms. This is my disappointment in the idea of “Grounding Social Sciences in Cognitive Sciences,” is that it does not go far enough in accepting all the ramifications of humans being an evolved species of animal, with evolved social behaviors like many other animals, whose proximate mechanisms are somewhat arbitrary from the point of view of an explanatory science of social behavior.

2) What has cognitive science done for us, ever? The promise of this science is greater than 6 American MRI brain scans in which a given action is correlated with localized brain activity. Can cognitive science overcome the limitations of neuroscience?


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