Berezow and Campbell on social science.

My wife loves me. [and I love her, BTW.]

How do I know she loves me? Why is this an evidence-based statement, rather than just my fervent hope? Here’s a data point…just one of many…she’s conflicted about my blogging…time spent on that is in competition with time we can more fully share together. But every once in a while, despite that bias, she spots material she knows will be of interest and she sends it my way.

Latest case in point? An article she read in USA Today this past week while she was out of town: written by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, it’s entitled “Stealth War to Redefine Science.” She thought it worth bringing to my attention.

See if you think she was right.

The article is subtitled “money and liberal campus politics raise threat to the funding of sciences.” This topic is certainly discussed. But so are others. I hope you’ll get a chance to read the original article in its entirety. Maybe we should all read their new book, entitled Science Left Behind.

In the meantime, here are some excerpts from the USA Today piece, to whet your interest/give you a flavor:

“In our state of political gridlock, the scientific community fears the impact of the looming federal budget cuts known as “sequestration.” But there is something else they should be fearful of: the redefining of science itself.”

Berezow and Campbell then claim there’s an increasing trend to expand the definition of science to include disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. They see money and politics as the drivers. As they state it, a “science” label brings eligibility for funding from the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. They assert pushback from the scientific community, which they say arises because “Science funding is a zero-sum game.”

[Here was the first part where I ran into some trouble. Doesn’t it seem that our entire historical experience with science funding is that it’s most decidedly not a zero-sum game, that it’s just the opposite? Science funding has a track record of generating wealth – and therefore more societal margin, enabling support of still more science. And the experience suggests that just as in economics policy, governments have trouble selecting winners and losers, so to in science centralized planners face the same difficulties. The prizes go to those nations with the courage and vision to support science broadly across the board.]

Berezow and Campbell cite Charles Lane (accurately) as saying in a Washington Post column back in June that “The NSF shouldn’t fund any social science.”  and further, that “Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.”  [Lane’s full article is itself worth a read.]

Berezow and Chapman applaud Lane, adding: “He is largely correct. Though the social sciences are important, informative and interesting, they often fail to meet the five characteristics of rigorous science: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and predictability/testability. These characteristics are linked by a unifying theme — a true theory, in the scientific sense.

For biology, that is evolution; for chemistry, atomic theory; for physics, the laws of motion.”

They continue: “Not all studies within the hard sciences measure up. The majority of studies do, though. However, while there are notable exceptions, a substantial proportion of studies in the social sciences are not considered scientifically rigorous because the human experience is highly subjective and changeable across culture and time.”

It’s hard to quarrel with the standards that Berezow and Campbell propose. But it’s hard to meet these standards as well. By their lights, it’s not just the social sciences but also the so-called natural sciences (meteorology, geophysics; physical, chemical, and biological oceanography, and much more) that fail to meet the test. The natural sciences all rely on observation as much as any controlled experimental conditions. It’s hard to control experimental conditions within a thunderstorm or hurricane, or within the auroral-zone, or deep-ocean rifts. The same goes for, say, the dynamics of a boreal-forest ecology or desert ecology. As for so-called true theories, these don’t tend to spring up full-grown. A lot of chemistry and a lot of years elapsed between Empedocles’ assertion that all matter was composed of four elements – Earth, water, air, and fire – and the development of the periodic table of the elements we know and teach to today. The terminology of physics may have been clearly defined in my days as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, but that terminology has largely been thrown in the ashcan since; today’s action in physics occurs along entirely different lines.

It’s therefore tempting to read Berezow and Campbell as suggesting that only mature sciences should be funded. And yet, as one of those social sciences they deride – economics – might suggest, if brought to bear on this issue, it may be that the marginal utility of investments in these mature…and increasingly expensive…sciences is declining. [Controlled fusion comes to mind, its clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, controlled experimental conditions notwithstanding.]. It may be that the greatest bang for the buck lies in investments in newer, younger…and more ragged…disciplines.  Suppose, for example, I’m a policymaker eager to feed a hungry world. Should I wait for physicists to write the Hamiltonian of a cow or a grain of wheat? Or should I try my luck with support for an ecologist and/or geneticist? Or maybe, if I note that in the developing world some 30% of farmers’ produce rots in the field, because the countries lack the roads and transport to bring it to market, perhaps I might be forgiven for funding social science into the root causes of that poverty and that decrepit infrastructure.

It’s also hard to argue those who fund the physical sciences can avoid being influenced by value judgments, any more than their counterparts in other fields. Patterns in public funding suggest that those disciplines that are funded devote some of their support to maintaining that funding over future years, through a variety of political means.

And that brings us to the second bit of the Berezow-Campbell thesis, that the academic community skews heavily left politically: “A recent survey by economics professor Daniel Klein revealed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a whopping 30-to-1 ratio in anthropology; 28-to-1 in sociology; nearly 10-to-1 in history; and nearly 7-to-1 in political science. In economics, which is widely considered “conservative” by other social fields, Republicans are merely outnumbered 3-to-1.”

After some argument to the effect that academics are seeking to redefine or relax the rules of science, they conclude: “America has a wall of separation between church and state. Similarly, we also need to maintain a wall separating science from sociology, even if some social fields use science as a proper name.

Probably lots of room for criticism here, but let’s tackle this another way. Berezow and Campbell raise an issue that all of us need to think through. It has two aspects. The first is that when doing their science as such, whatever the discipline, scientists need to check their political leanings at the door. This is possible to do, at some level, but requires discipline and character. To their credit, the vast majority of career members of the Senior Executive Service learn how to serve both Democratic and Republican administrations. In this way they provide an existence theorem of sorts. Professionals of all sorts, including physical scientists, and including social scientists, can do this…and do it every day, in a broad range of roles.

The second aspect is that virtually all students of the science policy process agree that publicly-funded science should aim for societal benefit. You and I may disagree about how this might best be achieved, but not about the ultimate goal. We can attempt to debate this issue no-holds-barred, or we might hope to bring in some social science, figuring that whatever clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and predictability/testability…unifying theme — a true theory – might be brought to bear from the social sciences would be better than nothing.

Regrettably, the above are off-the-cuff reactions, driven by the need for timeliness more than comprehensiveness. There’s much in Berezow and Campbell’s thought process to ponder, and their thinking is no doubt representative of a larger group. Your additional thoughts would be more than welcome…they’re urgently needed.

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4 Responses to Berezow and Campbell on social science.

  1. James Correia Jr says:

    The five characteristics of rigorous science! Medicine would fail that. There is no reproducibility (even in the peer reviewed literature). String theory is largely unprovable as is the multiverse (someone more knowledgeable than I can speak to that).
    I like how a recent “survey”, a product of the more social of sciences, was used to highlight political preference. Wonder where that pot of money came from to support such non-science!

    If they are arguing for ethics, we can all certainly agree. Science is messy. There are no clean experiments. Rigor is needed in all areas of the sciences, but the test isn’t one of the subject matter, it is of the process of science. The method we use to gather and examine data to use as evidence to prove or refute hypotheses is what these fields have in common. That we can use this process makes it science. Bias is human and we have designed methods to fight it, even if they are currently poor, only through arduous battles will we make them better.

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  3. Katie Kaku says:

    Their proposed wall between social and natural sciences is a bit like us scientists sticking our fingers in our ears and closing our eyes while loudly singing “I have nothing to learn from them.” It is not an uncommon attitude, but, well, not one I agree with.

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