Anti-Scientific Revolution

I’ve made a number of attempts to write this article, and have failed a number of times. I always come off as too professorial or too philosophical or too-something, so bear with me because I think there is a real problem here that I want to delicately point out. I say delicately, because I think that our natural disposition for empirically reproducible truths will incline most to quickly reject my critique. I want to make a case for a particular sort of anti-scientific revolution.

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When I was 6 years old, my Mom would take me to The Natural History Museum in New York City at least once a week. I would stand at the front door of my family’s apartment, deranged in that little-kid way, jumping up and down yelling “BOOTS ON! BOOTS ON!”  I realize now that it must have been a relatively fun excursion for her—much more interesting than the monotony of Sesame Street, The Lion King and Goodnight Moon; I imagine she thought she was cultivating some sort of nascent scientific curiosity in me.

All I knew at the time was that I loved the dinosaur chicken nuggets and thought the “whale room” was the best place in the world. I would stare at the diorama of the pod of dolphins, or the one of the giant squid and killer whale fighting. I would spend hours exploring every inch of those dioramas. I imagine myself precociously noting the way teeth varied across species of dolphin or observing the krill that clung to the massive belly of the blue whale.  Even at that young age, I’m pretty sure I knew that the models were just that: models. I knew that they approximated real life—that there were dolphins out there who jumped like that (or at least something like the model showed) but that was about as far as reality was conveyed in those scenes.

Perhaps this is a weird way to start an article about what I called the anti-scientific revolution, but the point of this anecdote will, I hope, become evident. In short, I will suggest that our modern obsession with models and the tenets of the scientific method has led to a disproportionate amount of trust in the empirical social sciences. We have trouble seeing this as problematic precisely because it has become the norm to view the world though a scientific lens; to hypothesize and expect reproducible results in all fields we study. I suggest this is foolish. Governments, markets, societies etc. are just too complex, filled with too many externalities, to be crammed into models.

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Let me tell you what this is not. This is not a broad condemnation of the social sciences (political science, economics, sociology and a number of related fields). These fields clearly ask provocative questions and all aim to answer the same existential question: what is it like to be human? No matter how you want to approach this question, through social interactions, or politics or markets etc., it is hard to deny the question’s importance.

This is also not me sitting on my hard-sciences-throne, as a number of friends have been quick to suggest. I acknowledge that the hard sciences are rarely unbiased, and that people can be equally misled by rigidly fixed beliefs in whatever the chic scientific finding of the moment is. Just consider the mass terror that arose when a now-retracted study indicated that vaccinations were the cause of autism[1]. Such a finding has long lasting negative repercussions for public health.

I still believe that this problem is more entrenched and insidious in the social sciences. My suggestion is that the scientific methodology that the social sciences utilize leads us to dogmatically believe that the findings of social sciences are steadfast facts about human existence. High credence in these “facts” has more immediate ramifications for our normative judgments about what our society ought to do than the findings in the hard sciences—a natural result since the findings of the social sciences are much more easily applied to the proceedings of our daily lives.

We ought to see this as a problem. I intend this piece to be a challenge for social science majors to really explain to me, and perhaps others, why I should trust the graphs and models that accompany the papers in social science academia like I do those in science textbooks. I hope, in starting this dialogue, to show you just one reason why you shouldn’t.

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Consider the recent discovery by a student at UMass Amherst, that the major paper supporting austerity during times of fiscal crisis “Growth in a Time of Debt” (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2010) had some serious problems with data analysis (and that the two Harvard co-authors couldn’t quite use excel.) The findings of the Reinhart-Rogoff paper indicated insidious economic repercussions for countries whose debt rose above 90% of the GDP. In the debates of the last 3 years surrounding the debt ceiling, fiscal crisis etc., proponents of austerity referenced the paper repeatedly.

All of a sudden the shining beacon of scientific evidence that seemed to ground many economists beliefs in frugal spending during times of debt lost favor in academia. My question is: will this change anything for the proponent of austerity? My intuition is no, of course not. They will maintain their belief despite what they thought to be their main piece of evidence--or at least the easiest and most impressive one to point to--being based in fallacious reasoning.

I have no interest in making this a political battle one way or the other. I only bring up this example to suggest that in these types of debates the scientific method really doesn’t hold any major weight. We believe that we have been given great pieces of evidence with experiments in the social sciences whose p value is below that magical .05-barrier. In truth, however, these findings are merely used to reinforce the given parties natural inclinations on the given issue.

This is the confirmation bias seeping into every corner of what we thought to be an empirical science. I hope that you see the oxymoron there. This is not physics where our experimenters are ready--hoping even--for their hypotheses to be disproven. We have too much at stake in our intuitions about politics or economics (etc.) to ever really accept our hypotheses are wrong. We look for empirical evidence that proves our point and disregard the rest.

We need to be extra-cognizant of this fact--to resist our psychological aversion for non-reproducible fact so as not to cheapen a whole slew of interesting and helpful findings within the social studies. There are curious trends and correlations to note in the real world and perhaps certain models out there can approximate reality quite well, but they cannot account for it all. There are too many externalities and lurking variables, too many ways that things change to believe that our political and economic world could ever fit to a model.

Instead, let’s return to the child in the Natural History Museum making very basic inferences about the animal kingdom from looking at the dioramas. Just by observing the small scenes one can infer that (e.g.) the giant-squid is a predator. I realize this is a basic hypothesis to make from these models, but I suggest they are exactly the same types of inferences that the social studies ought to be making. Merely note; observe from a disinterested position, as the scientist ought to. This mindset will force the social studies to reflect the actual phenomena in the world, instead of merely using a model to legitimize a preconceived intuition. Science goes hypothesisàexperimentàconclusion not conclusionàexperimentàconfirmed conclusion; we ought to expect variation and allow fluidity and flexibility to findings about our complex social world.

Perhaps then I’m not suggesting an anti-scientific revolution after all. What I’m asking for is just that our social sciences actually practice good unbiased science.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/05/autism.vaccines/