The big stinking error of the social sciences


The big stinking error of modern social sciences is the idea that an argument can be evaluated on the basis of who is making it. At the crudest level, this is expressed through culturally permissible forms of prejudice such as accusing a man of ‘mansplaining’ or a suggesting someone’s view comes from a position of ‘white privilege’.

Such observations could well be true, but they do not relate to the heart of the argument. If, for instance, a view does originate from a position of white privilege then that should result in the person expressing that view making errors or overgeneralisations that can presumably be countered by those with a better informed perspective. If the person’s privilege does not cause them to make such errors then it is largely irrelevant.

We know, for instance, of the existence of right-leaning thinktanks that are funded by wealthy individuals or corporations. When a representative of such a thinktank makes the argument for lower business rates or a reduction in capital gains tax, we may think, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” However, this fundamentally does not tell us whether such tax policies would be beneficial to society by whatever standard you wish to define ‘beneficial’. Similarly, when the head of a union argues for greater protection for workers and against union-busting legislation, we may also note an element of self interest. And yet, again, it tells us nothing about the value of such policies.

Unfortunately, rather than developing corrective mechanisms for such fallacious ad hominem arguments, the social sciences seem intent on baking them in to elaborate sounding theory.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Paul Thomas’s extraordinary critique of Daniel Willingham. Part of Thomas’s argument was that Willingham, who comments on education from a background in psychology, was guilty of ‘epistemic trespassing’. Thomas has continued this discussion with Willingham and others on Twitter and, as part of this, has quoted from a paper by Nathan Ballantyne with a view to demonstrating a robust research literature supporting the concept.

Ballantyne’s argument is pretty easy to grasp. Essentially, those with expertise in Field A usually lack the knowledge to comment expertly on Field B. However, their lack of knowledge of Field B leads them to assume they understand it better than they do – a classic Dunning-Kruger effect. And so their pronouncements about Field B are often made with overconfidence. Various figures are mentioned such as Linus Pauling, a chemist, and his views on disease and Richard Dawkins, a biologist, and his views on religion.

As a side-note, I wrote a critique of Dawkins while a university student back in the mid-90s as part of a unit on the philosophy of science. At that time, he was perhaps less well known for his strident atheism than he is now, although that strand had been present since his first popular science book, The Selfish Gene. My criticism of Dawkins was that he seemed to have a more mechanistic and deterministic view of nature than could be supported by fundamental physics.

Whether my criticism was right or wrong, it was far more valid than any based on suggesting that he, as a biologist, should not be commenting on ideas outside of his field.

It is, of course, true that critics from outside a field are highly likely to lack sufficient knowledge and may suffer from overconfidence. This is almost a definition of being inexpert. However, if Dawkins’ lack of knowledge of religion or philosophy causes him to make errors then we can point these out and if it does not, then it does not matter.

After all, I think we can agree that outsiders sometimes have a positive contribution to make. Even Ballantyne suspects, “we must trespass to answer most important questions”. So trespassing versus not trespassing is not the determiner and can never be so, rendering much of this intellectual display rather moot and rendering the concept of trespassing unfalsifiable – it is bad apart from when it is good.

Overconfident interlopers should be the easiest opponents to defeat for a self-confident field with a sound mechanism for weighing truth against falsehood. Swaggering fools should rapidly be sent packing by any robust area of scholarship once their arguments are rendered facile. There should be no need to point and say, “You have no authority here – get off my land!”.

Yet here we are. Until the social sciences can think its way back out of complicated status games, we are unlikely to see much of value emerge from it.

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3 thoughts on “The big stinking error of the social sciences

  1. Mike says:

    If someone has nothing to say to someone from another discipline beyond “get off my patch” or “a fancy-sounding unfalsifiable theory backs me up, so there”, you can be pretty sure that their area of study rests on little more than sand.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    Willingham, who comments on education from a background in psychology, was guilty of ‘epistemic trespassing’.

    And yet Prof Thomas writes himself on a range of fields. Mostly reading, but also

    — Social context reform: A pedagogy of equity and opportunity

    — De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization

    — Becoming and Being a Teacher: Confronting Traditional Norms to Create New Democratic Realities

    — Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education

    — Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?

    So apparently he is allowed to range across the plains, but everyone else has to stay off his reservation? I wonder what his qualifications are for talking about economics?

    (The one thing he doesn’t stray any distance at all from though is extreme progressive thought. You can pick his views on pretty much everything before you start. Progressives talk big about diversity, but they can’t actually abide it in practice.)

  3. This has a very combative tone to it. The author talks about defeating points of view and winning arguments. This clearly has implications on freedom of speech.

    I am left feeling that perhaps it is only the so called experts in a field are the ones allowed to comment. How would you suggest running elections on this basis?

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