Social Scientism

How social science has become social commentary

It is well known that social science—psychology, sociology, and economics—has devolved into more than one hundred sub-specialties. Less well known is the result: criticism, which is essential to science, is increasingly restricted to bubbles of the like-minded. This has allowed critical criteria to diverge to the point that some areas of social science have ceased to be scientific at all.

To illustrate how this divergence has come about, let’s look at three examples, one from physical science and two from social science.

The basic paradigm of experimental science is straightforward. First, identify a problem. For example, a classical problem is aiming artillery: locate the landing spot for an artillery shell given the orientation of the gun. What are the relevant variables? The obvious causal variable is muzzle velocity; the relevant theory is Newtonian physics. If you know the muzzle velocity, the angle of fire, etc. and Newtonian physics, then you can predict the landing spot exactly.

That answer will be wrong, of course, because it overshoots the actual landing spot. Why? Because muzzle velocity is not the only relevant variable: the aimer needs to take account of air resistance as well. How much air drag does the shell encounter as a function of its velocity? — a tricky problem if the shell is to pass through rarified air at high altitude. The scientist/engineer needs another set of experiments to establish the velocity-air-resistance function. With that in hand, he can go back and modify his Newtonian calculations and get the right answer.

Here’s a second example, from social science. The problem is wealth disparities, particularly between different racial groups. How should they be understood? As in the ballistics example, once you’ve identified the problem you look for the causes both external and internal (exogenous and endogenous, air-resistance and muzzle velocity). Exogenous causes are societal helps and hindrances, e.g., racism and favoritism. Endogenous factors are the behavioral capacities of the individuals involved, e.g., their interests and abilities. Are they smart or not? Well-educated? Well-motivated?

The next step would be to estimate the relative contribution of endogenous and exogenous factors. This is tough because you can’t do experiments with groups of humans the way you can with physical objects. The best you can do is look for correlations. For example, is there a correlation between the degree of racial discrimination experienced by a group and the group’s socioeconomic success? Is there a correlation between, say, average IQ or other behavioral measures and economic success? Is there a correlation between the criminality of a group—measured by the number of murders, arrests, convictions, etc.—and its economic success?

Well, there is a field called stratification economics devoted to just this problem, but it doesn’t follow the course I have outlined. Stratification economics looks only at exogenous causes of racial wealth disparities, i.e., so-called ‘systemic racism.’ It intentionally ignores what I have called endogenous causes. It is ballistics with air resistance but no muzzle velocity.

[Related: “The Corruption of Science by Social Justice”]

Why the omission? It’s obvious that individuals differ in almost any psychological characteristic. It is almost certain, therefore, that different groups differ in these dimensions. This is all well known. Why, therefore, do the advocates of stratification economics insist that endogenous factors be totally discounted? Why should “bypass surgery” be performed so that a “conceptual occlusion” and “circumvention” of “self-defeating behaviors” can occur?

There are reasons, none of them logical. They are to do with the emotions surrounding the racism issue. It is presumably so painful for some economists to entertain even the possibility that group differences in wealth might reflect, in part, group behavioral differences, that they are happy to discard the idea entirely.

Acknowledging substantive racial differences is difficult even for some reporters. I recently had a long email exchange with an education reporter who absolutely could not accept the idea that groups, especially if one of the groups is African-American, might differ in average IQ, a fact established beyond dispute. (It is worth emphasizing that the genetic basis for these differences is uncertain, and irrelevant to their socioeconomic effects.) In any event, a group of economists who feel this way have invented stratification economics, an academic sub-discipline from which behavioral differences have been expunged.

I mention this rather arcane topic because it is an example of something that has become almost universal in social science: the infusion of moral values and emotions into what should be scientific—causal, factual—analyses of social phenomena.

My third example was prompted by a long 2018 paper by Emily Cross and three others: “An Interdependence Account of Sexism and Power: Men’s Hostile Sexism, Biased Perceptions of Low Power, and Relationship Aggression.” The article caught my attention because of its liberal use of words like bias, sexism, status, and power, which struck me as both emotionally loaded and difficult to measure, or even define. They seemed out of place in an ostensibly scientific paper.

It turns out that the source article, in a large literature, is “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality” by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (2001), which focuses on gender inequality. This is a an influential paper, with more than 1,500 citations. It also created a novel concept, which they term benevolent sexism.

The Glick and Fiske article seems to identify a legitimate research problem: gender inequality. Unfortunately, unlike wealth inequality, the problem addressed by stratification economics, gender inequality is tough to define, since it is not purely financial (there does seem to be a gender wealth gap, although it is not addressed in these articles). Nevertheless, Glick and Fiske assume that gender inequality exists, even if they cannot measure it. They assume inequality and try to analyze how it is sustained by pointing to aspects of behavior that seem to facilitate it, ‘benevolent sexism’ being one: “benevolent sexism … serves as a crucial complement to hostile sexism that helps to pacify women’s resistance to societal gender inequality.”

[Related: “Paranoia Strikes Deep”]

So, benevolent sexism helps men hold on to “more status and power.” But the authors provide no measures of status and power, nor do they define sexism. In the absence of quantitative measures, this claim is moral, not scientific.

Benevolent sexism (a subjectively favorable, chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who embrace conventional roles) coexists with hostile sexism (antipathy toward women who are viewed as usurping men’s power) [emphases added].

Not everyone would agree that “conventional roles” and “affection” are bad things. Nor would they agree that women, like non-whites, are under the heel of colonial tyrants:

Benevolent sexism may serve functions similar to belief in the White man’s burden, allowing men to maintain a positive self-image as protectors and providers who are willing to sacrifice their own needs to care for the women in their lives.

Just why is “chivalry,” say, bad? Implied, but not defined, is a better world in which men and women have identical roles and identical ‘power.’ But without defining such a world, words like “favorable” have no scientific meaning. They simply become an expression of the authors’ unspoken preferences, preferences which are shared by most of their readers and thus allow the field to drift further and further from science.

There is a simple definition of science, provided more than two hundred years ago by the wisest, and clearest, philosopher of the Enlightenment, David Hume. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume wrote:

If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning about quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning about matters of fact and existence? No. Then throw it in the fire, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Much of modern social science, including these papers on gender inequality, fails Hume’s test. They are covert moral claims dressed up as science—not science at all, but social commentary.

Carl von Clausewitz reportedly said that “war is politics by other means.” Unless and until the researchers meet Hume’s requirements and define the world they prefer, a world which behavior like “benevolent sexism” disfavors; until they define a measurable standard, their work, popular as it is, is politics by other means, not science.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • John Staddon

    John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University. His most recent books are The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science, 3rd edition (Psychology Press, 2021) and Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery, 2022).

3 thoughts on “Social Scientism

  1. The author claims that social science is now little more than social commentary. I would go further and state they were never a science to begin with. Scientific inquiry depends on being able to duplicate experimental results. There are established mathematical methods (other than simple statistics) used to analyze the data acquired and justify assertions.

    Any field that has the word “science” attached isn’t a science. (Some colleges actually offer a degree in “family and consumer sciences”.) And that includes the field of computer science as well.

    1. Not all science is “experimental.” Geology and geography come to mind. They are “field” studies. Sociology and psychology can use experiments in limited contexts (usually college students).
      Cultural anthropology, although also a “field” study, aspired to be scientific for a period in mid-20th century. There are a few elements that contribute to a scientific approach in anthropology. One is investigating hypotheses (as opposed to the current practice of confirming assumptions). A second is collecting evidence which in principle could support or reject a hypothesis. A third is comparative analysis, to see if associations discovered hold up among cases.
      Perhaps you would not wish to grant these examples the status of “pure” science. But they did pursue their work in the spirit of science, and did defend against fantasists making things up, as seems to be common procedure in the social sciences today.

      1. Agreed. Of course there are non-experimental sciences. But they usually allow for prediction, in astronomy most obviously, but also geology and some aspects of anthropology. And a non-experimental hypothesis can be made plausible through the gathering of evidence: Darwin’s proof of natural selection is the most obvious example. But the ‘science’ of gender studies pretends to be empirical if not experimental, yet has the faults I outline. And never mind ‘pure’ anything!

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