Recently, we’ve been looking at the problem of psychology researchers admitting they fudge data, in an apparent effort to get media attention (here and here). In “More Scientists Behaving Badly” (Best Schools, November 17, 2011), James Barham comments
The sciences devoted to the study of Man cannot but be different in kind from the exact sciences. Human beings are not billiard balls, and it is vain to found “sciences” on the pretence that they are.
Therefore, we should not look for an end to the scandals in the social sciences until researchers in those disciplines finally get over their “physics envy.”
That’s the heart of the problem – expecting that all viable areas of research should be like physics. Questions like accused fraudster Stapel’s “When do people show more prejudice?”, for example, are themselves inherently fuzzy, never mind that the answers are. Some situations may be ethically straightforward – race prejudice, for example – but others are not. That’s when implicit value systems come into play.
For example, one researcher may choose to regard parents who don’t want convicted pedophiles living in their neighbourhood as showing “irrational bigotry,” which he wants to study as such. The parents themselves (and other researchers) might say that there is nothing irrational about it: They have made a rational decision that the pedophile is a danger that their children can, and should, live without.
Is there a “science” perspective from which we can say which side is right? File that under Faint Hopes.
Eventually, inappropriate demands for physics-like certainty promote fraud. Cynicism sets in: The researcher can’t tell them what’s true, so he tells them what sells. Media are always happy with that, until the roof caves in.
Can change happen? Barham thinks
that is not likely to happen until our profoundly mistaken image of Man—one that is reductionist, mechanist, and determinist—is replaced by a more realistic view of ourselves as the feeling, willing, reflecting, and aspiring beings that we are.
It would sure be a different social psychology. One we recognize.
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