Social Science: Like Astrology and Phrenology Perhaps?

September 15, 2020

I do not understand sociology. In 1962, I ended up in a class taught by an esteemed eccentric named Bruce Cameron, Ph.D. I had heard about his interest in short wave and drove past his home to observe the bed springs hanging on the front of his house. The idea, as I recall, was to improve radio reception. Those in the engineering department at the lousy university I attended shared the brilliant professor’s fascination with commercial bed technology at lunch. Even I as a clueless freshman (or is it now freshperson?) knew about the concept of buying an antenna from our local electronics shop.

In the remarkable Dr. Cameron’s Sociology 101 class, he posed the question, “Why do Eskimos wear mittens?” Today, the question would have to reference indigenous circumpolar  people or another appropriate term. But in 1962, Eskimos was the go-to word.

I pointed out that I had seen in the Smithsonian Museum an exhibit of Eskimo hand wear and that there were examples of mittens with a finger component (trigger mits or nord gauntlets), thus combining the warmth of a mitten with the needed dexterity to remove a harpoon from a baby seal.

He ignored my comment. The question turned up on our first examination, and I recycled my alleged learning from the Smithsonian information card for the exhibit.

I received zero credit for my answer. Bummer. I think that was the point at which I dismissed “sociology” and placed it and the good professor in the same pigeon hole I used for astrology and phrenology.

After reading “What’s Wrong with Social Science and How to Fix It: Reflections After Reading 2578 Papers,” I reaffirmed my skepticism of sociology and its allied fields:

But actually diving into the sea of trash that is social science gives you a more tangible perspective, a more visceral revulsion, and perhaps even a sense of Lovecraftian awe at the sheer magnitude of it all: a vast landfill—a great agglomeration of garbage extending as far as the eye can see, effluvious waves crashing and throwing up a foul foam of p=0.049 papers.

The write up contains some interesting data. In reference to a citation graph, the paper points out why references to crappy research persist:

As in all affairs of man, it once again comes down to Hanlon’s Razor. Either:

  1. Malice: they know which results are likely false but cite them anyway.
  2. or, Stupidity: they can’t tell which papers will replicate even though it’s quite easy.

There is another reason: Clubs of so-called experts informally coordinate or simply do the “I will scratch your back if you scratch mine.”

What quasi-sociological field is doing its best to less corrupt? Surprisingly, it is economics. Education seems to have some semblance of ethical behavior, at least based on this sample of papers. But maybe the sample is skewed.

The paper concludes with a list of suggestions. Useful, but I think the present pattern of lousy work is going to persist and increase.

Hang those bed springs on the side of the house. Works for “good enough” solutions.

Stephen E Arnold, September 15, 2020

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