Friday, 29 May 2015

The demand for bad social science

Why did nobody recognize that Lacour's research was quite implausible? One factor: people wanted to believe it. It told a good story.

Nobody much cares how, say, a Barium atom behaves. But we care very much how humans do. This may be one of social science's big problems. Theories of society, from primitive myths up to the latest carefully-identified natural experiment, are asked to play multiple roles, only some of which involve factual correctness.

Politically, governments want social science to support their narratives. Lysenko got promoted by the Soviets for telling them what they wanted to hear about evolution (well, that's biology, but the Soviets didn't do things by halves). Right now, fear of Islamists means there is a demand for studies of "radicalization". Maybe radicalization is a good object of study – maybe the concept cuts reality at the joints. More likely, it is a concept du jour which adds nothing to the idea of persuasion.

Socially, we all have a very sensible interest in encouraging the right kind of stories to circulate about the world we are living in. We want a society where people are treated equally. So, we want social science that says people are equal. The Romans wanted it the other way – stories about the essential inferiority of slaves, say. I prefer the first kind of society. But neither motivation has anything to do with the search for scientific truth.

Psychologically, all of us as thinking adults are heavily invested in our social and political beliefs. We ignore the evidence that goes against them and give extra weight to what supports them. Not surprisingly, popular science books can sell well by catering to this trend.

Social science theories often seem to coincide with changing social trends. The 70s was the heyday of "self-esteem" as a way to improve kids' performance. Now self-esteem is out and it is all about character. I would love to believe that the changes are driven by new data and theoretical advance. It seems more likely that the reverse is true. When society changes, it creates a demand for the science to support it.

I do not know how to stop this at a social level. For the individual social scientist, here is a practice worth trying. Imagine, on the way in to work every morning, that you have signed a deal with the Devil. You will insult the Gods, spit on the Lares and Penates, and mock the accepted beliefs of your society. In exchange, the Devil may grant you the power to do some decent scientific work.