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.

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