Monday, July 22, 2013

Giving in.....and cashing in? The state of social sciences

To put it bluntly, the social sciences have largely been a scientific flop.  Despite ample funding for decades and claims to be science, no one can say that as a result of the knowledge gained through social science research, our society is socially healthier or happier or really even more self-understanding than decades ago.  One could ask why we still bother to invest in anything other than the most safe and useful kinds of social science (like, perhaps, demography or economic statistics that are measurements rather than 'theories' of social life).  Perhaps we should close down the departments and let the jobs go to fields that better deliver the goods?

Never!  An article  in the NY Times suggests that, yes, social sciences have failed -- or rather, have accomplished what they set out to do a century ago, describe society, and are now stagnating -- but that shifting to hypertech approaches will save them, and that this will require dissassembling current departmental structure in favor of new-fangled ones, as was done in the hard sciences.

The author says that we've now long known that, for example, too much concentration of power in a few money oligarchs leads to social disparity, and that racism is part of human nature, and that health disparities exist, other things of that sort  Instead of continuing the relentless, but unproductive restudy of this litany of topics, what we need is to set up departments for these new get-with-the-modern-program technologies.
... social scientists should devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields like social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics, most of which, not coincidentally, lie at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Behavioral economics, for example, has used psychology to radically reshape classical economics.
But what is the point of any academic department, especially in the sciences?  One might say that it is to learn truths and teach them to students who will live better and/or more edifying lives.  But is it simply to document what researchers see, such as that racism and health disparities exist, as the author suggests the social sciences have done very well?  In the case of 'science', we also expect research to lead to solving or at least ameliorating problems we face, and this is particulary true of the social sciences -- they should help us improve group and economic behavior, political and intercultural relations, improve education and social well-being, and relieve mental anguish, etc., should they not?  And we look, whether properly or not, to university faculty to take a leading role in this. 

From this point of view, the problem is not that we have now long known basic facts about society, psychology, economics, and politics, but that there has not been the dividend to the society that's been paying the bills to keep these fields in business. The state of our society these days is prima facie evidence that social sciences, despite a half-century of substantial funding (including by NIH), have not been delivering the goods.

Now one source of troubles in the social sciences has been a strong anti-science movement that has gone under various names, in various disciplines.  One term is 'postmodernism', whose advocates basically argue that personal subjective impressions exist but that social phenomena aren't being or can't be subject to ideas like laws of Nature.  This has been very divisive, and like many things became an ideology of its own, that has driven some departments to hive off scientific branches in a mutually desired separation from militant subjectivism.  But that rift doesn't seem to be the author of this article's problem--at least it's not so stated, whose argument is that social sciences have been successful up to a point, but then stalled.  Why it stalled is not explained.  Is it that what is settled are just some bland generalizations rather than precise predictions?

From its beginning in the Enlightenment period, an important and explicit goal and criterion of science has been to manipulate and control Nature.  In that light, it is not easy to see the failure of social sciences when it comes to many social issues we face.  We have an unbudgable drug problem -- illegal substance abuse as well as pervasive lifetime meds including mood-related therapy.  Those in the lower classes (why are there still lower classes?) are in jail, unemployed, poorly educated and hovering fearfully, to the sound of gunshots, in their locked tenements at night.  Hm, and there still seems to be a race problem.  Everyone in the middle class has to have a permanent personal therapist, and belong to a gym to get some exercize and relief from their daily cubicles.  Kids are overwhelmingly not receiving good educations.  Our governments are spying on everyone and democracy is retreating, with fewer participants and private interests buying influence.  And we need not mention the general gun problem.

What about teen sex and pregnancy?  Or, how about our diet, and its health consequences, not to mention our failure to accept a social contract by which we agree to care for each other (as in, for example, nationalized health care and decent welfare programs that give funds to the actual needy)?  Are increasing economic disparity and unconstrained greed by bankers and boom-and-bust cycles signs of a successful social science program -- when we've known the underlying social facts, as the author says, for a long time?  And what about crime cycles?  They occur, but nobody knows why.

And, well, is being gay a disease, a genetic trait, or suddenly (and historically, again) simply part of the normal range that needs to be recognized?  Why was it unconstitutional to have same-sex marriage a few years ago but suddenly it's constitutional and just fine...but only in some societies?  And then how about the world's 7 billion population, and growing, or the choking air and warming climate due to uncontrolled urbanization, exurbanization, suburbanization, and paving over of farmland (and uncontrolled soil erosion)?  We can think internationally, and that brings us to militant Islam (cf, formerly militant Christianity), to genocide (e.g., Rwanda, Congo, Yugoslavia).  Or blood diamonds?

One cannot fault the social sciences for not solving all the world's problems.  The problems are hard and there isn't agrement on what is wrong or what to do (some people benefit from blood diamonds, inequity, and recreational drugs and would not want the system to change).  And after all, even if biomedical sciences are sciences, people still get diseases--with few exceptions the same diseases we got before NIH started pouring money into biomedical research.  We have said much here in our blog about the over-promises of medicine, but there is, at least, a direct mandate to try to do something about the problems studied, and in many areas it actually gets done.  But if the successes in social sciences are true, then why have things stalled in the progress department?

This a sad situation, because in many ways the social sciences are far, far more important to our lives, and life-long, than even medical science. After all, we do all have to die of some cause some day, but that is usually brief relative to a lifetime, unlike the long-lasting effects of war, poverty, social discrimination, endless mental anguish, poor education, uncontrollable economies and their job and other consequences.  Knowing this and knowing about human cultures and their behavior, change, and structure, and about human behavior, are very important and it would be a major tragedy if, universities chuck them for venal reasons, (investing in chemistry because it brings in grant money), because every student should hear their wisdom.  That's certainly true in anthropology, our particular field.

But perhaps the social sciences should level with us more openly and with less selfishness: universities do have every right to ask whether they should shift resources to more effective areas of research.  Instead of disemboweling the Times author's field, he wants a bunch of new tech-based departments formed, which among other things is usually another way to acquire buildings, administrative staff, and lower teaching responsibilities, but as what?  a reward for a history of failure?  There is nothing wrong with arguing that, say, network analysis or game theory, or what-you-will could improve the yield, but those could be (and already are) studied in social science departments without having special centers, and many of these research areas have actually been around for a long time, again, without much yield.  For example, the idea of social networks, one of the author's recommended new disciplines, isn't exactly new.

The issues we rattled off above are ones whose nature and prevalence have changed dramatically in all sorts of ways, even just during your and our lifetimes, and repeatedly over known history.   They have not changed because of what professors at universities say, as a rule, but as a result of the internal workings of societies in the real world.  Indeed, that cultures evolves on their own, with humans being relatively biologically constant, has long been known.

To suggest that the issues in understanding social phenomena are genetic is really preposterous.  The societal changes have been major, but the gene pool hasn't changed!  Certainly some genotypes may make someone a bit more likely to do this or that, but the predictive power to date has generally been poor, and cultural context is manifestly and vastly more important than genotype, as we've said many times and about which there is even widespread agreement.   Let those who advocate new-tech for old problems demonstrate that it will actually make a real difference, without making promises (as does genetics) that this will solve all ills.  After all, if it's science it should lead to rigorous theory with predictive powers, and those then should be translatable into policy and amelioration of problems.  This seems to be what the author is claiming.

Rigorous understanding of its problems is very difficult and the social sciences probably need a good dose of slow-down, scale-back and rethinking their basic epistemology -- their way of understanding the world or posing well-posed questions.  If students had a better understanding of society and its issues (i.e., the faculty were teaching more and doing less multivariate regression on social survey data, or fMRI scans, or computer-based observations on paid undergraduate volunteers, etc.), there might be some at least edification in their lives, perhaps even some new understandings (if knowledge is even relevant to human social behavior).

Technology is challenging to learn and use, but that's often a rather mechanical process, and it is trivially easy to invoke technology as if that by itself will lead to answers.  We see this in genetics and other omics fields every day.  Anyone can buy a DNA sequencer or software to analyze brain scans.  So is the plea to shift social science to such areas a sideways glance at where the money is, and the societal will to spend it?  Maybe not, but it certainly has a familiar ring, that we hear all the time in biomedical circles.  It rings of physics envy, which goes all the way back at least to Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx (and, in some ways, Darwin himself).

Maybe our society is falling for snake-oil promises by biomedical sciences, NIH, the journals, and the media.  But it is not hard to think that the suggestion that the answer for social science problems is the same technologies, and invoking evolution and behavior genetics, is either very shallow, very gullible, or a very cynical strategy to get at the public purse.  And anyone over the age of consent should be aware of the history of abuse that a fervor for geneticizing or Darwinizing behavior leads to.  It is naive not to be concerned that the gushing rush in this direction today does not pose risks of some sorts of repeat of the mind-set of the eugenics era.  Change a few terms here and there, and the conceptual rhetoric is very similar.

Fortunately, it's not very likely that the social sciences' lobbying will shift much money their way. After all, the new genomics itself, despite decades of hype and billions of dollars, has not made much of a dent even in major health problems. Most of our health gains have been due to things like environmental changes (exercise, better diet, etc.), rather than most of the kinds of research that's been so publicized. Besides that, geneticists are already grabbing the behavior genetics/evolutionary psychology brass ring.   But the lack of dramatic progress even in medicine suggests that there seems to be no precedent or natural success-based momentum to draw money, already getting so tight that geneticists are crying in their champagne, away into the historically low-yielding fields that have been floundering.  For that to happen, we need to hear some actual ideas, not a list of current fads or technologies, nor a plea for new research centers in times of fiscal stress.

What is needed is to examine everything, root and branch, and resource deprivation rather than largesse is most likely to engender it.  Just to take some illustrative examples of business as usual issues that should be considered seriously, is multivariate regression using off the shelf software packages, standard practice in the social sciences, the best way to understand social behavior?  Are experiments on college students, the best way to understand society as a whole?  Is survey research reliable?  If society is changing so that the same kinds of surveys have to be done again and again, then something is wanting in the explanatory realm.  Will 'experts' on campuses, publishing in journals few people read, change political vested interests, eliminate the many emotional seeds of racism or greed for differential wealth, other peoples' resources, or political power?  Even in principle, how can social science, or behavior genetics for that matter, change smug, hypocritical religions and their willingness to slaughter each other?  Or are these things simply beyond the realm of what our society views as 'research' and not well suited to the type of activities we call 'science'?

As we said above, in our opinion the issues and problems in the social sciences' purview are, in truth, more important to more people in more ways and for more years than most of those in the hard sciences, even including much of medical science.  How should they be addressed?

You be the judge!


Daniel W said...

To be slightly defensive of the social sciences for a moment (but only slightly), I would point to something the Cultural Anthropologist (a social science that has long been in crisis) Maurice Bloch said recently which was to effect that the only disadvantage of closing down departments of (cultural) Anthropology would be the dissappearance of opposition to erroneous theories, which while long disproved, still to tend to have a zombie-like recurring existence in the general population and even - or perhaps especially at moment - supposedly scientific commentators (He was referring to ideas like that cultural evolution is a singular, uniform process, that cultures are discreet entities, that there is a necessary connection betweeen levels of technological and economic development and types of religious practices and so on).

Given that such social sciences - especially those influenced the most by that multi-headed hydra usually denominated as 'Postmodernism'- are usually the most opposed to sort of explanations favoured by behavioural geneticists and evolutionary psychologists, surely the preferred option here would be a type of academic pluralism rather than a wholescale shutting down of the various alternative viewpoints that have emerged in academica over the previous century (and that's another thing about the social sciences - economics, sociology, anthropology, polisci, etc - is that they have often approaches and theories which contradict each other).

Shutting down social science departments would also - I think - have the effect or making policy makers turn to 'hard' scientists for their decision making and given the record of that, as you said, is that really desirable?

Ken Weiss said...

Actually, while the postmodern critique of theories of culture has had incisive insights, it was often so categorical and angry as to have riven anthropology (and, sometimes, it certainly deserved the assault).

I was trained by Leslie White, a masterful cultural anthropologist, and others, in an era when it was considered legitimate to seek general theoretical ('scientific') understanding of human culture. While it had many faults (including ones you mention), to me its main idea (going back to Marx, Durkheim, Tyler, Morgan, and others) was that culture is a phenomenon of its own, and generally not something to be accounted for by details of individual humans.

I personally think there were great insights during that era, despite the clear failures of predictions, insights to build upon. The idea of reductionism, either to genes or networks of evolving 'memes' should bear the burden of proof, however, given their track record (and I believe behavior genetics has such a truly evil history, that explicitly led to the slaughter, incarceration, or sterliziation of millions (even if the science never actually justified that, of course), that we need to be especially wary of it). The NSA surveillance phenomenon shows that we cannot trust the power structure not to use purported inherent properties of people.

I agree with your middle paragraph, and that's why we said we did not see a need for new departments (perhaps the plea was based on the exclusionary throat-hold in some departments, perhaps at Yale, the author's home).

And clearly from applied areas, like economics, we should learn the lesson of your last paragraph.

Ken Weiss said...

Indeed, the actually well established bits of knowledge in the social sciences, I think, would include the realization that power will be used where it can be used, and that it can or will be corrupted.

Bruce G. said...

Sadly, I have to agree with Ken. For example... I once knew of a police officer who'd lined his new custom laminate countertops with a metric ton of "confiscated" money and "substances".

Why is this relevant? Because, it's just one of the million stories of corruption of power.