Thursday, July 29, 2010

The science of the social sciences

I would just remind people reading this on blogger, that I am not going to be cross-posting here much longer.  My new address is over here and if you leave a comment, that is where they will be responded to.

There have been some discussions the past few days or so, about just how scientific the social sciences are. There was this discussion at Uncertain Principles, about psychology and the limitations of psychology studies. And there was this discussion at the Lousy Canuckistanian, about whether or not economics is really a science. The former discussion led to some rather strong hating on psychology in the comments, while the latter was infested by a pretentious fucking asshole who dismisses the social sciences as pseudoscience.

I am going to focus this on psychology and basically just post my response to the thread on Uncertain Principles, because that is my field and because for the moment I really don't have time to write a long post about this.  This can be easily generalized to the other social sciences.

I will just add up front, that one of the biggest problems with the social sciences, even more than the fact that people actually make real world decisions based on imperfect studies, is science journalism.  While not all science journalists are shit, Dirk Hanson is a fucking brilliant example of a good science writer, most of them are.  Those reporting on the social sciences aren't any different.  They misinterpret studies all the time.  They tout the results of extremely limited preliminary studies as though they can be generalized.  They fuck up our work, just like they fuck up everyone else's.  That isn't the fault of social science PI's or the various social sciences themselves, anymore than it is the fault of bio-med PI's or the bio-med fields who routinely get horribly misrepresented in the media.

Psychology has a long tradition of largely being a cult of personalities. While to some degree that is still the case, the personalities are the folks who really turned psychology into a hard science. And their results are constantly being challenged or pushed to the limits, to find the breaking points.

Every single psychology class I have taken now, has focused as much on science and the methods of science, as it has on the specific science we're talking about. And I have barely begun scratching the surface. Nor is my experience in the least bit unique, this is how psychology is being taught, because that is what psychologists do - science.

And there are a lot of us who are particularly keen on generalizing outside of Western undergrad populations. That is largely why I am focusing on evo-psych, which will (for me) mostly involve cross-cultural work that will focus on Eastern European and Asian populations (I hope and assuming my brain doesn't explode while learning Russian).

But even where we are seriously limited by biases, there is a lot of solid science being done. While a lot of studies use relatively small sample sizes, they are replicated several times over. It is kind of hard to conduct studies with massive sample sizes, when you have to invest several man hours into each subject. So you use the sample that is feasible and if the results are promising, you replicate it - along with several other investigators.

It is really, really irritating to listen to (or in this case read) people who have little to no clue what is actually happening, expound on the junkiness of the science. The human brain and all the influences on human behavior are exceedingly complicated. Kind of like physics is complicated, or genetics is complicated or cosmology is complicated. Like the science being done in those fields, we break things down as much as is feasible and investigate each bit as best we can. As we reach verifiable, quantifiable conclusions, they become part of the larger picture that is "what we know," or more accurately is, "what we are pretty sure we know."
For psychology, it is complicated by the same major problem that medicine has to deal with - we need to treat real human beings with the best tools we have, regardless of what we actually know. We don't have the luxury of perfecting anything, before we try to help people. There are people who need help, regardless of how well prepared we are.

So we muddle along, because someone who's anorexic, isn't likely to live long enough for us to perfect their treatment. Someone who has absolutely no control over their drinking, their snorting, their smoking or their shooting, doesn't have the luxury of waiting until we're sure we have it down. Especially as addiction has a hell of a lot of causes. Like cancer, we're talking about an array of illnesses - not some singular entity. And that is exactly the case for a great many mental illnesses, as we have been learning through cognitive studies and neurological studies.

But we are most certainly not engaged in pseudoscience. If you honestly want to use that word, then you need to figure out what the hell you're actually talking about beforehand.

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