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What Can Social Science Tell Us?

- January 11, 2008

Robin Hanson says that only recently did he come to believe that social scientists knew stuff. He argues that skepticism about social science may arise because social scientists talk dumber than they are:

bq. I think is that most public talk by social experts reflects little social science. That is, what social experts say in legal or congressional testimony, or in newspapers or magazines, mostly reflects what they and we want and expect to hear, instead of what expert evidence reveals.

Andrew Gelman responds, with many interesting observations:

bq. Compare to physical and biological sciences and engineering. Research in these areas has given us H-bombs, chemical fertilizers, laptop computers, vaccinations, ziplock bags, etc. etc. And social science has given us . . . what? An unbiased estimate of the incumbency advantage? The discovery of “nonattitudes”? A clever way of auctioning radio frequencies? The discovery that sumo wrestlers cheat? Not much “news you can use,” I’d say.

bq. Social science is important, though. It gives us ways of looking at the world…But, to be sure, “ways of looking at the world” is pretty weak. The dollar auction is an impressive demo and the median voter theorem is cool, but it’s not like the hard sciences where, for example, you can point to a cloned sheep and say “hey, we did that!”.

bq. Rather than comparing social science to physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, a more useful comparison might be to history…History has value in itself–interesting stories–and helps us understand our world, although not always in a direct way. Once people start trying to organize their historical knowledge, this leads into political science…Similarly, social psychology organizes what would otherwise be episodes of personal stories of social interaction, economics organizes what would otherwise be anecdotes of business, etc.

Some initial thoughts:

1) I see Robin’s point. There are times when I am talking to reporters and the answer to their question is “It’s too early to tell” or “There’s no evidence to support that” or “The thing you care about is probably not important” or “The research suggests a more complicated story.” That happens a lot when I get calls about the campaign. A reporter wants to know, as one did a couple weeks ago, whether Oprah Winfrey’s appearances with Obama helped his standing. I told her, “It’s too early to tell.” (Like a good social scientist, I wanted to see some data first.) But she pressed, framing things in hypothetical terms (“Could there be advantages to these rallies?). And so I verbalized a thought process vaguely informed by research on primary elections: loosely speaking, visibility helps create viability and the rallies may have provided Obama more positive visibility with voters, in the media, etc.. And that was enough to give her a quote or two to run with a tenuous weaselly-worded story that suggested that the rallies were an important phenomenon. I told her something closer to what she wanted to hear, just as Robin suggests social scientists sometimes do. I should have said, “We can’t know, and here’s why” and left it at that.

2) Obviously, I think that social scientists know stuff. This blog is dedicated to that proposition. (And to Lee’s cats.) I think Andrew puts it pretty well: social science helps organize discrete pieces of data, historical and otherwise. (Not that historians would want their research described as “discrete,” of course. A friend who has a history Ph.D. once said this to me: “What does poli sci teach us, besides democracies don’t invade each other and nobody knows why.”) I might take it one step further: it’s not that social science “organizes,” it’s that it systematizes. Simply put, it seeks general logic(s) to human behavior. And, in fact, it’s pretty successful in doing so, at least in some cases. Forecasting models of presidential elections are pretty accurate, and what seems less “systematic” than the hurly-burly of election campaigns?

3) Andrew also talks about “news you can use.” I do think social scientists have something “useful” to offer, even if we fail to communicate that well. At least among my own students, I find that many really want to understand human behavior. I just taught a course on “the political psychology of prejudice and intergroup conflict,” in which we discussed not only the extreme cases, such as genocide, but also the mundane ways in which we engage in stereotyping and milder forms of prejudicial behavior. I emphasized how cognitive and social psychological theories could help them understand their own behavior and the world around them. They analyzed a news article of their choosing for its implicit stereotypical content, and the vast majority of papers were good to excellent. When we talked about social influence, Milgram, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib, etc., a student beat me to the punch by noting that the same psychological processes lead to hazing rituals.

All that is to say, while average people may not be so self-reflexive as to continually analyze their own behavior in light of social scientific theories, many do want to know how people really think and act and why they do so. Such topics are much closer to our daily lives than string theory or even Ziploc bags. In this way, social scientists have a tremendous advantage, one that Blink and Freakonomics and similar books have capitalized on.

But communicating the knowledge that we have remains a significant challenge. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.