What are the (relatively) settled matters in the social sciences?

Jul 23 '13

Nicholas Christakis asks (scroll to the P.P.P.S. at the end of the post):

What are the (relatively) settled matters in the social sciences? Can we social scientists can ever say that “we have pretty much figured this out” (as in the way biologists have figured out certain topics)?

My reply: I dunno. Krugman would say it’s settled that it’s a good idea to expand government hiring during a depression, but others disagree! For an example from psychology, stereotype threat is claimed by some to be very well established, while others have difficulty finding it at all. In various ares of social research, there’s debate about the replicability of all sorts of claimed effects.

Ideally, I think, once something is settled, this can be the staging point for more research. For example, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated “anchoring and adjustment” and other so-called heuristics and biases. Then later researchers followed up with studies trying to crack open anchoring-and-adjustment, to understand experimentally how it happens and how to alter it.

Overall, I’d say that, if anything, social scientists perhaps don’t spend enough time re-confirming the definitive statements. There’s a real push toward novelty, to the extent that maybe we don’t have enough “gold standards” of well-established social patterns.