When social science theory becomes a set of blinders


It’s a pretty good demonstration of realpolitik (or ‘realism’): Under Donald Trump, the U.S. didn’t want its soldiers prosecuted for crimes committed in Afghanistan. Under Joe Biden, the U.S. wants Russians, including Vladimir Putin, prosecuted for crimes committed in Ukraine.[1]

The idea of realism theory is that states act amorally and callously according to their own perceived interests. And it is true that they often do. It’s a partial picture, however, and a demonstration of my point that social science theories should be treated like tools in a toolbox, deployed and shamelessly cited when useful, left in the toolbox when not.[2]

So, is the U.S. guilty of hypocrisy with regard to the International Criminal Court? Of course it is. Was the U.S. guilty of war crimes in Afghanistan? Of course it was. Is Russia guilty of war crimes in Ukraine? Of course it is. Modern warfare is inherently and unavoidably criminal, particularly when, as in Afghanistan, and as is often the case in asymmetric conflict, it is difficult to tell combatants apart from noncombatants. But especially so when parties to a conflict, as with Russia, see criminality as militarily advantageous.

The trick here is to see beyond the lens of realism theory. There will be more to the story in nearly every case. We don’t know what it is because journalists treat realism paradigmatically and form their stories accordingly. Social science theory thus becomes a set of blinders.

Adam Taylor, “The United States and ICC have an awkward history,” Washington Post, March 16, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2023/03/16/icc-us-cooperation-international-criminal-court-history/


Right-wing militias

Police White supremacist gangs

Fig. 1. Photograph by Lorie Shaull, April 1, 2021, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Mark Belko, “Allegheny County Police are again patrolling Downtown Pittsburgh a week after leaving,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 15, 2023, https://www.post-gazette.com/business/development/2023/03/15/allegheny-county-police-downtown-pittsburgh-mayor-gainey/stories/202303150085


Fig. 1. “East River Savings Bank,” apparently now a CVS drug store. Photograph by Jim Henderson, July 3, 2021, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.

What caused the sudden loss of confidence in [Silicon Valley Bank] is the stuff of rumors. The made-for-Twitter rumor with the most staying power posits that the iconoclastic Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel decided the gig was up at SVB and that he, or one of his executives, urged his portfolio companies at his Founders Fund to take their money out of the bank. Did he also buy short-dated puts on the SVB stock, or short it, to help make the whole thing a self-fulfilling prophecy? Who knows? (His spokesman, Jeremiah Hall, at Torch Communications, did not respond to a request for comment. But his partner, Trae Stephens, all but confirmed to Bloomberg that Founders Fund initiated the stampede.) Further speculation has it that both Sequoia and a16z then followed Thiel’s lead and urged their portfolio companies to get their money the heck out of SVB. There have also been reports that as early as December, Fred Wilson, the dean of New York’s venture capital industry, at Union Square Ventures, began telling its portfolio companies to flee SVB.[3]

Brian Chappatta, “SVB’s 44-Hour Collapse Was Rooted in Treasury Bets During Pandemic,” Bloomberg, March 10, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-10/svb-spectacularly-fails-after-unthinkable-heresy-becomes-reality

Saleha Mohsin, Lydia Beyoud and Sridhar Natarajan, “FDIC Races to Return Some Uninsured SVB Deposits Monday,” Bloomberg, March 11, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-11/fdic-races-to-start-returning-some-uninsured-svb-deposits-monday

Associated Press, “US government: Silicon Valley Bank clients will get funds,” March 12, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/silicon-valley-bank-bailout-yellen-deposits-failure-94f2185742981daf337c4691bbb9ec1e

William D. Cohan, “SVB’s Valley of Death,” Puck, March 12, 2023, https://puck.news/svbs-valley-of-death/

Ben Foldy, Rachel Louise Ensign, and Justin Baer, “How Silicon Valley Turned on Silicon Valley Bank,” Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-silicon-valley-turned-on-silicon-valley-bank-ee293ac9

Victoria Guida and Sam Sutton, “‘There’s going to be more’: How Washington is bracing for bank fallout,” Politico, March 12, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/12/silicon-valley-bank-fallout-washington-00086662

Jeff Stein et al., “U.S. says ‘all’ deposits at failed bank will be available Monday,” Washington Post, March 12, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2023/03/12/silicon-valley-bank-deposits/

Nick Timiraos, “SVB, Signature Bank Depositors to Get All Their Money as Fed Moves to Stem Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/federal-reserve-rolls-out-emergency-measures-to-prevent-banking-crisis-ba4d7f98

Zachary Warmbrodt, “Banks fought to fend off tougher regulation. Then the meltdown came,” Politico, March 12, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/12/banks-regulations-feds-svb-meltdown-00086694

Adam Cancryn, Ben White, and Victoria Guida, “How Biden saved Silicon Valley startups: Inside the 72 hours that transformed U.S. banking,” Politico, March 13, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/13/the-emergency-bank-rescue-that-almost-didnt-happen-72-hours-00086868

John Cassidy, “The Old Policy Issues Behind the New Banking Turmoil,” New Yorker, March 13, 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-old-policy-issues-behind-the-new-banking-turmoil

Telis Demos, “Were SVB and Signature Bank Just Bailed Out by the U.S. Government?” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/were-banks-just-bailed-out-by-the-government-6b0a582f

Eric Lutz, “The Silicon Valley Bank Crisis Is Complicated. But Donald Trump’s Role In It Isn’t,” Vanity Fair, March 13, 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/03/silicon-valley-bank-collapse

David J. Lynch and Tony Romm, “Washington’s bank rescue fails to erase all doubts,” Washington Post, March 13, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2023/03/13/silicon-valley-bank-doubts/

Jeff Stein, “Is this a bailout and 6 other questions about the SVB collapse,” Washington Post, March 13, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2023/03/13/svb-bank-bailout-fed/

Zachary D. Carter, “This Bank Panic Should Not Exist,” Vanity Fair, March 14, 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/03/silicon-valley-bank-run-panic-should-not-exist

William D. Cohan, “Two Days in the Valley,” Puck, March 15, 2023, https://puck.news/two-days-in-the-valley/

  1. [1]Adam Taylor, “The United States and ICC have an awkward history,” Washington Post, March 16, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2023/03/16/icc-us-cooperation-international-criminal-court-history/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?” Not Housebroken, November 16, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/04/where-does-vladimir-putin-stop/
  3. [3]William D. Cohan, “Two Days in the Valley,” Puck, March 15, 2023, https://puck.news/two-days-in-the-valley/

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