Tag Archives: social science

Kathryn Paige Harden

Disappointingly, rather than addressing this problem, many scientists in the fields of education, psychology, and sociology simply pretend it doesn’t apply to them. The sociologist Jeremy Freese summarized the situation as follows:

Currently, many quarters of social science still practice a kind of epistemological tacit collusion, in which genetic confounding potentially poses significant problems for inference but investigators do not address it in their own work or raise it in evaluating the work of others. Such practice involves wishful assumptions if our world is one in which “everything is heritable.”

Freese was writing in 2008, but the situation now is no different. Open almost any issue of a scientific journal in education or developmental psychology or sociology, and you will find paper after paper announcing correlations between parental characteristics and child development outcomes. Parental income and child brain structure. Maternal depression and child intelligence. Each of these papers represents a massive amount of investigator time and public investment in the research process, and each of these papers has, in Freese’s words, an “incisive, significant, and easily explained flaw”—that differences in children’s environments are entangled with the genetic differences between them, but no serious effort is being expended toward disentangling them.

The tacit collusion among many social scientists to ignore genetics is motivated, I believe, by well-intentioned but ultimately misguided fears—the fear that even considering the possibility of genetic influence implies a biodeterminism or genetic reductionism they would find abhorrent, the fear that genetic data will inexorably be misused to classify people in ways that strip them of rights and opportunities. Certainly, there are misuses of genetic data that need to be guarded against […]. But while researchers might have good intentions, the widespread practice of ignoring genetics in social science research has significant costs.

In the past few years, the field of psychology has been rocked by a “replication crisis,” in which it has become clear that many of the field’s splashy findings, published in the top journals, could not be reproduced and are likely to be false. Writing about the methodological practices that led to the mass production of illusory findings (practices known as “p-hacking”), the psychologist Joseph Simmons and his colleagues wrote that “everyone knew [p-hacking] was wrong, but they thought it was wrong the way it is wrong to jaywalk.” Really, however, “it was wrong the way it is wrong to rob a bank.”

Like p-hacking, the tacit collusion in some areas of the social science to ignore genetic differences between people is not wrong in the way that jaywalking is wrong. Researchers are not taking a victimless shortcut by ignoring something (genetics) that is only marginally relevant to their work. It’s wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It’s stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that will go nowhere. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it.

Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Princeton, 2021, pp. 185–186

Daniel Kahneman

Every discipline of social science, I believe, has some ritual tests of competence, which must be passed before a piece of work is considered worthy of attention. Such tests are necessary to prevent information overload, and they are also important aspects of the tribal life of the disciplines. In particular, they allow insiders to ignore just about anything that is done by members of other tribes, and to feel no scholarly guilt about doing so. To serve this screening function efficiently, the competence tests usually focus on some aspect of form or method, and have little or nothing to do with substance. Prospect theory passed such a test in economics, and its observations became a legitimate (though optional) part of the scholarly discourse in that discipline. It is a strange and rather arbitrary process that selects some pieces of scientific writing for relatively enduring fame while committing most of what is published to almost immediate oblivion.

Daniel Kahneman, ‘Daniel Kahneman – Biographical’, in Tore Frängsmyr (ed.), The Nobel Prizes 2002, Stockholm, 2003

G. K. Chesterton

The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” And the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

G. K. Chesterton, What Is Wrong with the World, London, 1910, ch. 1

Jon Elster & Aanund Hylland

Formal theorizing in the social sciences is today in some danger of becoming baroque. A frequent scenario seems to be the following. In a first stage, there exists a theoretical problem with immediate economic, social or political significance. It is, however, ill-understood, perhaps even ill-defined. In the second stage, a proposal is put forward to conceptualize the problem in a way that dispels confusion and permits substantive conclusions to be drawn. In a third stage the conceptual apparatus ceases to have these liberating effects, and becomes a new, independent source of problems.

Jon Elster & Aanund Hylland, ‘Introduction’, in Foundations of Social Choice Theory, Cambridge, 1986, p. 1

Loyal Rue

To take Darwin seriously means, among other things, to place the study of human nature squarely within the context of evolutionary biology—which the social sciences have consistently failed to do.

Loyal Rue, ‘Sociobiology and Moral Discourse’, Zygon, vol. 33, no. 4 (December 1998), p. 526

Bertrand Russell

If politics is to become scientific, and if the event is not to be constantly surprising, it is imperative that our political thinking should penetrate more deeply into the springs of human action. What is the influence of hunger upon slogans? How does their effectiveness fluctuate with the number of calories in your diet? If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?

Bertrand Russell, ‘Nobel Lecture’, December 11, 1950