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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Soft sciences or soft heads?

In “Hard Questions From 'Soft' Sciences”, Christopher F. Chabris valiantly defends “social sciences” from a century of materialist disgrace and ends up saying something quite sensible:
Finally, the social sciences have upgraded their public-relations efforts. Page-turners like "The Tipping Point" (by Malcolm Gladwell), "The Blank Slate" (by Steven Pinker), and "Freakonomics" (by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) have stormed the best-seller lists. Glossy magazines write about "hot young economists." It's cool to do social science and to read about it.

Yet if social science is riding high, what is it riding toward?
More of that stuff, I fear. Well, Chabris, “psychology professor at Union College and the co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, to be published next month by Crown” suggests,

Social science is not immune to the general decline of public confidence in science and scientists, and the occasional arrogant disdain for lay people among scientists and academics, that was illustrated by the "Climategate" episode last year. Compared to institutions like the government, organized religion and the legal profession, science still retains tremendous respect. Yet this precious commodity is in danger.

Social scientists should be well-placed to figure out ways of protecting their own credibility, and they might start by opening up some distance between themselves and the political arena. They could be more modest in their policy prescriptions, and they should do some critical thinking of their own about whether 'education' is really a panacea for social ills, and the hidden dangers inherent in trying to engineer large-scale changes in human behavior.
Don’t count on it, unfortunately, not if we go by the onslaught of neurobullshipping from just about anyone armed with a scanner and limited insight into human behaviour.

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