My co-auther and I have a paper out a bit ago that argues catastrophe models represent stylized views of the world or rather, stylized facts. Stylized facts in this sense provide truthiness- felt truths about the world based on the political views of the one creating the model.
The term stylized fact originated with the economist Nicholas Kaldor in 1961 and has since become an integral component to economics in particular but also more social science broadly. Kaldor describes his concept as follows,
Since facts, as recored by statisticians, are always subject to numerous snags and qualifications, and for that reason are incapable of being accurately summarized, the theorist, in my view, should be free to start off with a 'stylized' view of the facts- i.e. concentrate on broad tendencies, ignoring individual details, and proceed on the 'as if' method, i.e. construct a hypothesis that could account for these 'stylized' facts, without necessarily committing himself on the historical accuracy, or sufficiency of the facts of tendencies thus summarized.
Summer of last year, Daniel Hirshman published a theory of stylized facts defining them as "simple empirical regularities in need of explanation." He notes four characteristics of stylized facts:
- They are based in the analyst's perception of what is real and relevant in the world
- Usually (but not always) technical definitions are conflated with broader colloquial meanings.
- They direct others to search for causal explanations.
- They serve as normative claims about how things ought to be understood and this does political and theoretical work.
Hirschman uses three examples to make his case:
- "Top incomes in the US" resulting in a social movement of the 99% versus the 1% (e.g. the Occupy movement)
- "The 90% Debt/GDP Threshold that Wasn't" whereby conclusions about the relationship of debt and GDP were highly dependent on analytic methodology
- "'No Differences' for Children from Same-Sex Families" in which subtle definitional differences in an independent variable (leading to differences in study results) were masked by the politically salient terms used to describe the category in general.
- This part had a particularly interesting comment leveraging the Mary Morgan's discussion of "traveling" facts,
Neither definition is wrong- definitions, in some sense, are incapable of being wrong in their own context. But findings do not stay within the confines of a single paper or study. Facts "travel," in Mary Morgan's felicitous phrase. And when social scientists subtly redefine a category (and in some sense, they are incapable of doing otherwise....) and then make claims about stylized facts characterizing that category, they are engaging in an important kind of politics.
Hirschman concludes that "stylized fact claims are one part theory and two parts description, "medium" interpretations, facts with a dose of values."
My only critique or addition is that I don't think stylized facts are limited to the social sciences.