Social sciences under attack!—despite supporting liberal ideology

Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, is concerned about the fact that the social sciences are not getting any respect from Congress (“Stop bullying the ‘soft’ sciences“; LATimes, July 12).

 Skepticism about the rigors of social science has reached absurd heights. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate funding for political science research through the National Science Foundation.

But it gets worse. Wilson cites opinion writers from the Washington Post and the New York Times who go so far as to say that the social sciences aren’t really sciences at all because they don’t have rigorous methodologies.

When it’s a bunch of cranky Republicans who don’t like the social sciences, that’s one thing. But when the liberal media establishment starts complaining, that’s a whole other ballgame. Deeply disturbing to all those social scientists who thought they were doing their best to promote the liberal agenda.

So how best to sell the social sciences to the liberal elites? Show that they support their most cherished beliefs. Some of Wilson’s examples of rigorous social science do just that, and he does not include any examples that would in any way challenge the dominant liberal zeitgeist.

Now I am not in the camp that it is impossible to do good social science. And I agree with Wilson that research has uncovered important and beneficial effects in treating some kinds of mental illness and other areas. But his presentation completely avoids any mention of biological influences on behavior, which are at least as well documented as anything mentioned in the article.

Instead  he highlights “stereotype threat”—the idea that African Americans do poorly on IQ tests because “they are concerned not only about how well they will do but also about the possibility that performing poorly will reflect badly on their entire group.” This mental burden causes them to score poorly. (Prof. J. P. Rushton and Arthur Jensen point out (pp. 249-250) that this theory can’t explain the pattern of correlations among IQ and various developmental variables are constant across racial groups. That is, for all racial groups, IQ has similar correlations with variables such as delinquency, family background, achievement, and scores on a wide variety of subtests, indicating that there is no race-specific factor structure of IQ.)

And he highlights a program, My Teaching Partner, touted to improve teaching skills. This fits into the current ideology that pretty much the only thing wrong with our schools is incompetent teachers. Social science is going to change all that, and before you know it, there will be no racial/ethnic differences in IQ or school achievement, and all children will be ready to go off to college and get their Ph.D.s.

I think that one of the big reasons why social science is disliked (at least by Republicans, if not the NYTimes) is that they are well known to be bastions of liberalism. Since Wilson is in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, he is presumably well aware of the research of his colleague in the UVA Psychology Department, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (see here and here). Haidt argues cogently that social psychology has become a “tribal moral community” and that this has a huge effect on research. “If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.”

When scholarship that contravenes the sacred (liberal) values of the tribe is submitted to academic journals, reviewers and editors suddenly become super demanding. More controls are needed, more subjects, more rigorous statistics,  etc. But when findings conform to the ingroup ideology, they get pretty much a free ride. This leads to to a host of unreplicated findings; the lack of replicated findings in the social sciences is widely considered to be a problem (e.g., here).

Again, I am not saying that good social science can’t be done. But morally tinged ingroup bias exists throughout the social sciences and is without doubt a central contributor to their shaky scientific status. In general, the less research involves differences between people–i.e., differences between individuals, sexes, races or ethnic groups—the more likely it is to be solid. Because it focused on human universals, disputes about Piaget’s research are just normal academic disputation, typically carried out in good faith and an honest appreciation for getting the data right; the basics are well-replicated. But when scientists enter into research on differences, they know there are powerful institutional controls on coming up with findings that fit the contemporary moral paradigm. And, given that the academic world self-selects for liberals, these scientists do not feel any cognitive dissonance in coming up with their findings.

But eradicating the academic culture of liberal/left moralism in the social sciences is a very difficult task. As the previous link shows, individuals with ideas and values that differ from the consensus would likely opt to go into other areas. If they do become social scientists, they would have to conceal their opinions, not just in graduate school, but throughout their entire careers if they want to have any social life at all in the university or within academic organizations. And they would be well-advised to focus their careers on non-controversial areas, such as human universals. Not a pleasant prospect.

Or they could to into the hard sciences where their attitudes and values would not be a liability, at least in getting their research published, only suffering by the need to keep their attitudes and values concealed from the wider university community if they want to be “respectable.”.

And if I had to do it all over again…

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