In this paper I develop a philosophical and methodological critique of ‘rationalist’—or ‘social scientific’—approaches to the study of civil war and violent conflict, especially the work of Paul Collier and David Laitin. Rationalist scholars purport to develop universal explanations for the outbreak and the protracted duration of violent conflict using econometric techniques and rational choice reasoning. My critique of their ‘scientific method’ can be summarised in two propositions: first, the scientific approach is considered to be a ‘cargo cult’ science—the cult being universal law-like causalities underpinning social phenomena. Second, most empirical research in this tradition is based on doubtful statistics enriched with anecdotal evidence rather than by empirical field work. Hence, rationalist scholars largely conduct an ‘armchair empiricism’ instead of immersing themselves in the complex nature of social mechanisms in a specific space-time context. I briefly sketch out an alternative approach based on critical realism and how such a research programme could work in practice for studying the political economy of violent conflicts.