The other day, John Derbyshire had a column up that sparked a few somewhat unrelated thoughts about the general topic of social science. I read a fair amount of sites that would fall into the broad category of social science. I’m also a history buff and I have an obsession with religion and mass movements. Throw in an unrestrained enthusiasm for biological realism and I get a lot of exposure to the culture of social science.
John offers up a line that reminds me of something you see a lot in social science.
Putnam is, in short, a bigfoot scholar who can dress, cook, and serve a fine table of research in the human sciences … which he then, for reasons ideological, finds himself unable to digest. For a guy prominent in a field that has the word “science” in its title, he has a weirdly blithe approach to matters of cause and effect.
The word “why” comes a lot, especially in the comment sections of articles. That would, at first blush, seem logical. Understanding why something happens or why people act in certain ways is the sort of inquiry you would expect from science, even the soft sciences. Simply knowing that men prefer blondes is fine for marketing, but science should want to know why this is so.
That’s almost never what you encounter in the soft sciences. Instead, the word “why” always precedes a threat or warning in the social sciences. “Why blacks score lower on tests is most likely a legacy of racism” is letting you know that there can be but one answer and you’re wise to avoid the topic entirely. It’s not an angle of inquiry, it’s a flashing red light signaling danger.
The alternative is to assume a cause and then ask, “Why slavery continues to cast a shadow over black achievement led to a study of why….” This is not a search for truth. It is a Jesuitical tactic intended, at best, to illustrate some pages of the Progressive catechism. The author is hoping to more fully explain some article of faith with a new take on the data. Education is riddled with this sort of language.
The allergy to knowing the answer to all of these questions shows up in the use of statistics. There are three aspects to inquiry. There’s observation, speculation and data. The overuse of statistics has relegated observation to a minor role and made speculation a heresy.Ooffering up a possible explanation for observable phenomenon is met with a rash of demands for “data to back it up!!”
When reading a paper, the author’s need to offer data to support even the casual use of semicolons results in text that is more footnote than text. I’ve read legislation amending the regulatory code that is easier to read than the typical social science paper. The fear of not providing data makes these papers unreadable, which is why so few are actually read. In fact, 90% are never cited by anyone, suggesting they are never read by anyone.
Maybe related, but I don’t know, is the fact that popular social science is never questioned. Malcolm Gladwell got rich publishing bullshit. Like a lot of people, I got a lot of yuks from his 10,000 hour rule, but he sold a lot of books and many of the beautiful people still site him. John makes a similar point about Robert Putnam, which is all of his proposed solutions have been tried dozens of times and no one ever points it out.
I also suspect there’s some outright bullshit in the popular stuff. This from John’s column brought that to mind:
Goffman, a young white woman, spent six years living among black proles in a Philadelphia slum for which she invented the cover name “6th Street.” Again, the main part of her book—pages 9 to 194—is simply descriptive. It is in fact really just journalism, with very few numbers and not a single table, graph, or chart.
I should add that On the Run is rather good journalism, quite gripping to read. The chaotic lives of black proles are vividly described. The young men dodge police, plan for their next drug test, and engage in concurrent sexual relationships. The young women raise kids, hold minimum-wage jobs, and fight over the men.
John was probably unaware that a lot of sensible people think her book is bullshit. I’ve lived around black ghettos for a long time and cute little white girls don’t last long in the ghetto unless they are from a state agency or the police. How much of Goffman’s book is real is unknowable, but that’s true of a lot of what passes for social science. Goffman’s book is rare in that someone read it and the Internet forced a debate on its veracity.
Probably the biggest defect in social science is the fact that they never seem to get anything right. Chemistry has added immensely to human happiness. Physics and math have pushed material prosperity for centuries. Social science, in contrast, has nothing but a long list of goofy fads to show for itself. Worse yet, much harm has been done to humanity by following the ideas coming out of social science.