Urban Planning for Gypsies*

Pruett-Igoe - social housing being demolished

Whenever I hear the words “sociology” and “science” used in the same sentence, I know that I am about to be sucked into an argument.  The sticking point here is what, exactly constitutes science, and what makes someone a scientist.

If you ask a sociologist, they will say that sociology is a science, just like physics.  If you ask a physicist, they will ask you what the sociologist was smoking when he made that statement.  You see, the physicist knows that science is built by hypothesis and logic, but is only validated through empirical verification. A sociologist, on the other hand, might say that the hypothesis and the theory are enough (I say might, because some sociologists are true to the scientific method, and I don’t want to generalize excessively).

There are both practical and philosophical reasons for the sociologists’ position.  Practical, in the sense that doing science with large groups of people can be difficult, and is understandable to a certain degree.  The philosophical is more insidious, as it involves the sociologists’ belief that as a scientist his theories are valid, and can be built upon with no experimental confirmation, which leads to houses of cards that seem incredible (through the lens of observation of actual human behavior) to anyone but another sociologist.

Hence, the title of this post, oxymoronic as it is.


I don’t really mean to imply that all sociologists are pseudoscientists, of course.  Many of them do keep their scientific training in mind and don’t fall into the trap of believing that well-constructed philosophy is in any way related to good science.  The bad ones, of course, become social engineers.

Social Engineers seem to commit the classic logical error of taking something particular and generalizing it.  The upside is that when they present a solution to this “problem”, they immediately have a compelling argument that shows that what they are proposing is important.  Typically however, social engineers (especially amateur ones) create more problems than they solve, simply by trying to do good.  Paving stones on the road to hell…

the reality of social engineers

They spend all their time trying to cure symptoms as opposed to studying the numbers and making decisions based on what is really going on, and seem to think that a small amount of sacrifice from everyone seems to be justified, if that can keep an individual or small group from suffering a little bit more.  Essentially, they are against any form of privilege and rile at anyone enjoying life when others can’t.  They seem to feel that we all have to be in the same boat – despite the fact that history teaches us that that’s not the case.  When, I ask of them, has everyone really been in the same boat?

prohibition - most people didn't want it

So we end up with things like Prohibition, Political Correctness, the Hays Code, Library book banning, gender/race quotas in companies and universities, protests against genetically modified foods, and countless others.  My favorite example is how many of the people involved in the anti-tobacco movement seem to be the same people pushing for the legalization of marijuana – despite the fact that a lot of the pulmonary health issues are the same!

To summarize, Social Engineering seems to be all about using small data sets to make generalizations about the whole of society, and to use anecdotal evidence (as opposed to statistically relevant evidence) and moral outrage when challenged.  Then, using nothing but these arguments, they force everyone into doing what they want (helmets on $%&!! motorcycles, for christs sake!) Seeing the state of the world, it seems to be a surprisingly effective way of doing things…

To quote longtime Road and Track Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis:

Social Engineering is to Engineering what Social Disease is to disease.  Both involve he hypocritical screwing of other people.

Yep, that’s precisely it.  Sad that we still have to say it twenty years after he did!

*MAJOR Brownie points if you can tell me where this phrase came from initially –  book and author.



  1. In my day, we spoke of “hard sciences” and “soft sciences”. Not that the former were more difficult or the latter plush, but in the same way that computers involve hardware and software. Some sciences can be worked with hardware while others cannot. In fairness to the social sciences, it’s often impossible to create an experimental group without drafting society as a whole into the experiment.

    And with selective hindsight, it’s easy to ridicule Prohibition simply because it was a disaster. I’ll have to mull that over, and let you know if I come up with something.


    1. I’d love to post what you come up with!

      Even in the soft sciences, extrapolating from small groups to society at large was always going to be a disaster. I think the risk of social engineering lies there, especially when the extrapolation means that other people need to make sacrifices for the greater good (it never seems to be drinkers who ask for prohibition for some reason).

      I know prohibition is an easy target, which is why I also included more modern examples here – my favorite is how people are forced to wear helmets on motorcycles. I hate that so much, as it removes an adult’s right to decide for himself about his own health.


      1. We’ve talked about helmets before,
        and what it comes down to is that traumatic brain injury
        is never a personal problem.

        Of course, a similar argument could be made for manditory condom legislation,
        the difference there being that people don’t usually have sex in the streets.
        So long as you ride your motorcycle in the privacy of your own home,
        you don’t have to wear a helmet.


      2. The thing that pisses me off–There is no law that says you can’t buy chocolate on Thursday afternoon. Why is there a law that says you can’t buy beverage alcohol on Sunday morning? Has anyone ever awakened on a Sunday morning and thought, “Oh, gosh, I can’t get a drink this morning. I might as well go to church.” ??? No. Never. This one bothers me personally, because I worked at a place where we had to take the rubbing alcohol off the shelf on Sunday mornings to keep alcoholics from buying it when we couldn’t sell the cheap booze they bought every other morning.


  2. I know, we’ve discussed… But one thing I’ve never told you is my proposed solution: make legislation such that if a person is injured while not wearing a helmet, he or she loses all right to state support afterward, and any right to legal action if an accident was caused by someone else. Let the person decide, and not be a burden to the taxpayer (I don’t believe the state has the right to decide whether that person can be a burden or a loss for his next of kin and friends).

    Extreme? Perhaps, but it comes under the heading of not legislating to protect people from their own choices, or their own stupidity (at least not in the case of adults).


    1. Actually, we’ve talked about that, too. It’s not just health care; we can’t give that person a get-out-jail-free card to prevent him from being a burden on society, and cannot be even reasonably certain that that person’s survivors will do everything necessary to prevent him being a burden on society, even if he purchased and staffed a sanitorum at his own expense beforehand. Traumatic brain injury is not a simple disability.


      1. But in that case, we’re legislating against too many “ifs”, allowing the government a little too much decision power over our lives for the greater good. I guess it comes down to: if I have to choose between greater good and individual freedom, I will choose the latter in everything except for possibility of bodily harm or coercion, which is what I think governments should exist to prevent.


  3. This is one of the points where we disagree on a particular, but agree in principle to a great extent. ~If~ I were to oppose helmet laws, it would be on the grounds of the precedent set. Because it’s not unreasonable to ask why we can’t have a manditory condom law, if we have mandatory helmet laws. People like to scream “Slippery slope!” but I’ve descended very few slopes that were not slippery, and don’t know of any nation or society that traced its full course on dry level ground. Still, I’m willing to yield the principle in this particular, not so much for the greater good as for the lower overall cost.


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