Some time ago, I wrote a piece criticizing IR theorists who slavishly stick to their theoretical models of the world even in the face of pretty compelling empirical evidence that they are wrong. This is not just a problem for IR, though; many economists and other social scientists also make large, unfounded assumptions for the sake of more simplistic theoretical modeling. This is fine as long as one notes the assumptions made by a model and realizes they are done for convenience, not accuracy. The problem is that people frequently conflate the assumptions of a model with its findings. The biggest perpetrators of this absurd trick are pundits and politicians who use phrases like “econ 101” to project a veneer of credibility onto their asinine commentary. Another example is the frequent invocation of Munich any time there is a call for compromise or conciliation toward a rival power. The point is that theories of the world are necessarily contingent and incomplete. There is no one master model that explains all human action, and anyone who blindly subscribes to a single view of the world is likely an idiot. So, what is the role of theory? This is an ongoing question I’ve been grappling with, but several ideas come to mind.
1. Theories highlight recurring patterns and thus allow us to predict future developments with some degree of accuracy.
2. Theories provide clear indicators for us to note and look out for when dealing with a novel issue. This does not mean that the specified indicators are the best explanation of a new phenomenon or event, but they might at least offer a partial explanation.
3. Theories help us catalog the variables at work, allowing us to untangle the muddled and complicated events we observe. By highlighting relevant variables and offering a way to incorporate them into an explanation of an event, theories also help us decide which variables are important and salient and which are meaningless.
4. By making explicit assumptions and arguments, theories allow us to isolate the “lens” with which we are viewing the world. In other words, by making our biases and assumptions more concrete, theories can help to identify potential weaknesses in our judgment and potential omitted variables. The trouble, of course, is incorporating things we have overlooked. Theories at least help us identify what we may have left out, though.
Ultimately, theories are inevitable, as we will always need to take the extremely complex world in which we live and simplify it down so that it becomes understandable. This also means that our views will be perennially incomplete, as a theory is oversimplified by design. It is like a map: It highlights the features of the world we are interested in, but this prioritization of certain variables comes at the expense of accuracy and detail. This is necessary because raw data is never enough. It has to be interpreted by people, and to do this people need theories. The recent wave of populism is a case in point; everyone knows its occurring, but there are many potential explanations for why. At the end of the day, somewhat speculative theoretical models are a crucial tool supporting humanity’s attempt to understand the world. As long as we understand what theories are for and how to use them, we should be fine. As soon as people start treating contingent theoretical models as the explanation of something, however, we begin to have problems because it’s at this point that theory becomes little more than ideology. We have enough of that right now.