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At the New York Times: Defending the failures of social science as “science”

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Even while prominent people in that field are coming to terms with the problem. From a New York Times science writer:

It is one thing to frisk the studies appearing almost daily in journals that form the current back-and-forth of behavior research. It is somewhat different to call out experiments that became classics — and world-famous outside of psychology — because they dramatized something people recognized in themselves and in others.

They live in the common culture as powerful metaphors, explanations for aspects of our behavior that we sense are true and that are captured somehow in a laboratory mini-drama constructed by an inventive researcher, or research team.

Huh? Whether many people recognized something in themselves or not, the experiments were not really a form of science and they simply confirm prejudices. He goes on:

When Dr. Nosek published his first major replication paper in 2015, finding that about 60 percent of prominent studies did not pan out on a second try, it was a gift to skeptics eager to dismiss the entire field (and maybe all of social science) as a joke, a congregation of poorly anchored findings that shift in the wind, like nutrition advice.

It’s not. On the contrary.

Housecleaning is a crucial corrective in science, and psychology has led by example. But in science, as in life, there’s reason for care before dragging the big items to the curb. Benedict Carey, “Psychology Itself Is Under Scrutiny” at New York Times

Okay. So if we think that — in principle — such a field is always too infested by politics to be seriously considered a science, we’re “anti-science”? There’s something wrong with preferring to support sciences that aren’t such a laughingstock? Fine. The rest of us will own that and be proud.

As Andrew Ferguson notes at the Weekly Standard,

The crisis in the social sciences has grown so obvious that even mainstream social scientists have begun to acknowledge it. In the past five years or so, disinterested researchers have reexamined many of the most crucial experiments and findings in social psychology and related fields. A very large percentage of them—as many as two-thirds, by some counts—crumble on close examination. These include such supposedly settled science as “implicit bias,” “stereotype threat,” “priming,” “ego depletion” and many others known to every student of introductory psychology. At the root of the failure are errors of methodology and execution that should have been obvious from the start. Sample sizes are small and poorly selected; statistical manipulations are misunderstood and ill-performed; experiments lack control groups and are poorly designed; data are cherry-picked; and safeguards against researcher bias are ignored. It’s a long list.

Crassly put, the unreplicated runoff from the social sciences, as Ferguson goes on to note, keeps papers like the New York Times afloat in an age when we don’t need it for the weather or the score:

This last sort of news—easily digested findings that scientifically explain the mysteries of human behavior—is fed and constantly replenished by the same social science whose elemental assumptions are withering before our eyes. This is bad news for the news… For Benedict Carey, the Times science writer, the collapse of social psychology is an understandably painful subject. The tone of his mini-essay is mournful, as if he’s watching an old friend walk to the electric chair. Andrew Ferguson, “The New York Times mourns the death of bad social science” at the Weekly Standard

Much of the hysteria and many of the goofs and gaffes we see in once-mainstream media are best understood as the outcome of not mattering the way they used to. Maybe social sciences are in much the same boat…

See also: What’s wrong with social psychology, in a nutshell

How political bias affects social science research

Stanford Prison Experiment findings a “sham” – but how much of social psychology is legitimate anyway?

BS detector for the social sciences

All sides agree: progressive politics is strangling social sciences


Back to school briefing: Seven myths of social psychology: Many lecture room icons from decades past are looking tarnished now. (That was 2014 and it has gotten worse since.)

5 Replies to “At the New York Times: Defending the failures of social science as “science”

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    The opposition between physics and engineering is well understood. Physicists “explore” delusions and disproved nonsense without reaching conclusions, while engineers solve problems that save lives or improve lives.

    In this case the opposition is social “science” vs marketing. Social “science” continues to explore nonsensical pointless dead ends and bizarre hallucinations without reaching conclusions. Salesmen long ago figured out all the relevant aspects of human behavior, and use their well-established methods to improve lives. (Or at least make lives more interesting!)

  2. 2
    mike1962 says:

    The New York Times has become far-left propaganda click-bait tabloid.

    Modern irrelevance except for the far left cultists.

  3. 3
    vmahuna says:

    There is of course a VERY scientific piece of Social Science, but it’s DESPISED by the mere fiction writers. And that piece is Statistical Analysis of IQ as it relates to a whole buncha things, including total lifetime earnings, probability of serving jail time for a violent crime, and of The Unspeakable: Race. The mean IQ for Americans of North European ancestry is 100 [that’s how the rest of the scale is calculated]. And the mean IQ for Americans of African ancestry is 85. Since the Standard Deviation for the European IQ curve is 15 points, 85 is 1 Standard Deviation below 100. Any unbiased statistician would consider this significant.

    Charles Murray has been predicting and confirming other obvious IQ connections for going on half a century. For his attention to details and very careful analysis of the cute little datums, Professor Murray is of course condemned. “Even if it’s TRUE, why would you want to TALK about such things?” The academics who own the Social Sciences much prefer to tell each other folk tales about fake “studies”.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    I think I have run across how Economics and Finance are trying to be re-categorised as STEM disciplines — distancing themselves from Social Sciences.

  5. 5
    News says:

    vmahuna at 3, we know very little about the human mind and that makes some of us suspicious of genetic claims for IQ, scrubbed of all questions re epigenetics, environment, history or culture.

    That said, what was the outcome of putting the Middlebury prof who invited Charles Murray to speak in the hospital (2017)?

    It apprised the rest of us that Middlebury, like Evergreen, may be better employed as a state pen than as a university. Of course, the “Middleburies” can always prove us wrong by behaving like civilized beings with a disagreement in the future…

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