The value of social science research

One of the benefits of basic scientific research is the potential for bringing about future breakthroughs. Fundamental research in the physical and biological sciences might one day lead to things like new sources of power, radically better construction materials, remarkable new medical treatments. Social scientific research holds no such promise. Work done in the social sciences is never going to yield, say, a new vaccine, or something akin to a transistor.

The statistician (and social science researcher) Andrew Gelman goes so far as to say, literally, that the social sciences are useless. But I’m being unfair to Gelman by quoting him selectively. He actually advocates for social science, not against it. Gelman argues that good social science is important, because we can’t actually avoid social science, and if we don’t have good social science research then we will be governed by bad social “science”. The full title of his blog post is The social sciences are useless. So why do we study them? Here’s a good reason.

We study the social sciences because they help us understand the social world and because, whatever we do, people will engage in social-science reasoning.

Andrew Gelman

I was reminded of this at the recent Learning from Incidents in Software conference when listening to a talk by Dr. Ivan Pupulidy titled Moving Gracefully from Compliance to Learning, the Beginning of Forest Service’s Learning Journey. Pupulidy is a safety researcher who worked at the U.S. Forest Service and is now a professor at University of Alabama, Birmingham.

In particular, it was this slide from Pupulidy’s talk that struck me right between the eyes.

Thanks to work done by Ivan Pupulidy, the Forest Service doesn’t look at incidents this way anymore

The text in yellow captures what you might call the “old view” of safety, where accidents are caused by people not following the rules properly. It is a great example of what I would call bad social science, which invariably leads to bad outcomes.

The dangers of bad social science have been known for a while. Here’s the economist John Maynard Keynes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (February 1936)

Earlier and more succinctly, here’s the journalist H.L. Mencken:

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

H.L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917)

As Mencken notes, we can’t get away from explanations. But if we do good social science research, we can get better explanations. These explanations often won’t be neat, and may not even be plausible on first glance. But they at least give us a fighting chance at not being (completely) wrong about the social world.

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