Defensive political science responds defensively to an attack on social science

by Andrew Gelman on July 21, 2013 · 4 comments

in Science

Nicholas Christakis, a medical scientist perhaps best known for his controversial claim (see also here), based on joint work with James Fowler, that obesity is contagious, writes:

The social sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. . . .

I’m not suggesting that social scientists stop teaching and investigating classic topics like monopoly power, racial profiling and health inequality. But everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class. There are diminishing returns from the continuing study of many such topics. And repeatedly observing these phenomena does not help us fix them.

I have just a couple comments here. I’m no economist so I can let others discuss the bit about “monopoly power is bad for markets.” I assume that the study by economists of monopoly power is a bit more sophisticated than that!

I have studied racial profiling, and I can assure you that this work is not about the claim “that people are racially biased.” I can also assure you that, whatever it is we have learned, it’s not true that “everyone knows” it.

As Duncan Watts has written so memorably, it’s easy to say that everything is obvious (once you know the answer).

Regarding the question of illness being distributed by social class: Is it really true that “everybody knows,” for example, that Finland has higher suicide rates than Sweden, or that foreign-born Latinos have lower rates of psychiatric disorders. These findings are based on public data so everybody should know them, but in any case the goal of social science is not (just) to educate people on what should be known to them, but also to understand why. Why why why. And also to model the effects of potential interventions.

The study of the contagion of obesity is just fine. In fact, I was once part of an NIH panel where where we recommended funding some of this research. But to say that this is the real stuff, and then to dismiss studies of monopoly power, racial attitudes, and variation in disease rates—that’s just silly.

Resources are limited, and I think it’s good to have open discussion about scientific priorities. So I applaud Christakis for sticking out his neck to participate in this debate. Even though I don’t agree with his particular recommendations.

{ 4 comments }

Lee July 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Christakis is doing a lot of deck-stacking in this column. I could do the same thing arguing that the natural sciences have “stagnated” because most departments “offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years”: physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. Meanwhile, social science departments offer newer fields like terrorism studies, game theory, digital anthropology, political ecology, evolutionary psychology, etc. And this innovation is why the social sciences tend to be very popular undergraduate majors. At Christakis’s own institution, Yale, economics, political science, history, and psychology were the four most popular majors in 2010-11 (http://oir.yale.edu/yale-factsheet#UndergraduateMajors). The public has also demonstrated a keen interest in economics given the popularity of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and the Freakanomics books (which are now a highly-ranked podcast). Etc., etc. Deck-stacking in this manner is an easy and useless exercise.

Christakis’s argument is based on a number of similarly dubious claims. He makes no mention of the existence of fields like geography and communication studies. He suggests that interdisciplinary studies in the social sciences are incredibly rare, though he doesn’t offer any evidence that this is true. He also suggests that any such interdisciplinary work has come about very recently based on two examples.

As well, does he have any evidence that undergraduates rarely have the opportunity to conduct to conduct experiments, surveys, etc. as social science majors? In my experience, the opportunities for this depend on the institution rather than it being a fault of social science departments in general. At my alma mater (a small, liberal arts college), it was so common for psych students to conduct experiments as part of their coursework that it was sometimes difficult for all of them to recruit enough subjects. At a larger institution like Yale, this may not be the case.

I’m also not sure if it’s a big problem that some students can become well-educated in a particular social science discipline without conducting fieldwork or experiments. Why does a subject have to be taught just like chemistry in order to be insightful, interesting, innovative, or relevant to today’s problems?

The social sciences are not the natural sciences and the ongoing attempts (most led by social scientists themselves) to force them to be less ‘soft’ may actually be problematic sometimes. The numerous attempts to explain human behavior in purely biological terms come to mind. The social sciences are unique in that they incorporate elements of the humanities and the hard sciences in order to study individuals, groups, institutions, societies, etc. This fusion is a strength, not a weakness.

skd July 21, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Everyone knows too much food causes obesity; everyone knows it’s not contagious. Oh wait..

C July 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Does the New York Times have a policy of running editorials by academic social scientists only if they are poorly argued AND attack their home disciplines? If the only thing I read about the social sciences was the dreck that makes it into the NY Times Sunday Review section I’d probably want to cut our funding too.

Russ C. July 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Well-said, well written; the dismissal of relevancy looms large in this article. Here’s another beef- why are “departments,” the sort of bureaucratic /political manifestation of disciplines (if that) the correct unit of analysis here? I say, if you’re going to go- go big. Here are my own thoughts: http://bit.ly/19ch1gO

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