The Devil Is in the Details

devil

One of my favorite targets for critical blogs is David Brooks. I generally find Brooks worth reading, either because he has stumbled into something interesting or he is far from the mark. Today, his column was in the latter category. As a preface, I may simply be in a terrible mood today because it hasn’t stopped pouring for a long time, the radar map says it won’t for perhaps another day, and my roof started leaking again.

In lieu of celebrating July 4th, Brooks was celebrating social science:

A day without social science is like a day without sunshine. Fortunately, every morning Kevin Lewis of National Affairs magazine gathers recent social science findings and emails them out to the masses. You can go to the National Affairs website to see and sign up for his work, but, in the meantime, here are some recent interesting findings. (Note carefully the weasel words in most of the items.)

Here are the headlines of items in his column:

  • Working moms sometimes raise smarter students.
  • The office is often a more relaxing place than the home.
  • Hearts and minds may be a myth.
  • Attractive children attract less empathy than unattractive children.
  • Too much talent can be as bad as too little talent.
  • Title IX has produced some unintended consequences.
  • Moral stories don’t necessarily make more moral children.
  • Good fences make good neighbors.

Given that he is a pretty smart fella, I think he was taking the holiday off and having fun at our expense. There is not enough said about any of the items to make a judgment about the quality of the work and the accuracy or generality of the conclusions. I remember a number of articles debunking studies that show correlations between all sorts of things and phases of the moon. (As I suspect Brooks also did not, I did not carefully examine the article(s) being cited.) Here’s a part of one of them.

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:

  • traffic accidents 

  • crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
  • 
births of babies
  • suicide
  • major disasters

  • aggression by professional hockey players
  • violence in prisons
  • behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
  • lycanthropy
  • vampirism
  • alcoholism
  • sleep walking
  • epilepsy
  • and 10 more in the original

Science is designed to give us a sense of reality; a sense essential in acting effectively. Natural science uses a methodology that produces universal theories and facts. Universal, or quasi-universal, because they can be applied outside of the specific conditions of the experiences from which the facts were gleaned, but not without limits. The methods of social science are not so powerful that they can easily produce such universal results. Unlike pure science, the conditions under which the facts are derived are ephemeral; the world of people is always changing and what I learned today may not be “true” tomorrow. Moreover the ability to generalize the sample being studied is not practical in most social science. Whatever results are obtained can be extrapolated to the larger world only with great uncertainty. As Brooks certainly knows, correlations never directly show cause. Other factors not examined may produce significant outcomes. It is exceedingly difficult to single out the variables to test in complex systems,.

In any case, if this is what Brooks calls social science, it would bring a bit of hilarity, maybe not sunshine, into the room. But I would not have picked up on this piece save for its conclusion.

Most social science research confirms the blindingly obvious. But sometimes it reveals things nobody had thought of, or suggests that the things we thought were true are actually false.

That’s a message for you, federal appropriators.

Is he telling someone in the government to use more social science. Who are these “federal appropriators?” Does he mean the budget committees in Congress? Is this a plea to avoid ideology? If it is, it is a very weak one.

One does not need to evoke any kind of science to see the reality out there. Science is needed only to understand it so that the actions one takes are expected, with confidence, to produce the results desired. In an interesting juxtaposition, the adjoining column by his fellow Times correspondent, Paul Krugman, argues for action to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. So is science needed to make decisions about whether to spend our funds on rebuilding it? Social science (economics) presumably can show some correlation between the condition of our infrastructure and GDP, but always with some use of weasel words. (The economist uses the familiar, on the one hand…) Poets can often do a better job than scientists in discovering truths about the world; Robert Frost did need science in the case of item number 8. Maybe we should be paying more attention to our artists than our social scientists if we are interested in dealing with the reality of our world. Brooks reinforces the old saw that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

(Cartoon credit: Mark Anderson)

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