Mind over patter will kill spin

October 13, 2006

Too often we allow ideology to skew the debate on human behaviour, rendering the science suspect. Only by returning to rigorous inquiry can we reverse this trend, says Lee McIntyre.

In the "dark ages" of the natural sciences, it was commonplace for theories of the physical universe to be challenged and rejected based on nothing more than their conflict with sacred religious beliefs. Galileo famously sought audiences with the Pope, trying to convince him not to reject the new telescopic evidence supporting Copernican theory merely because it conflicted with Scripture. He failed and ultimately drew from the Catholic Church a lifetime prison sentence, which made him a martyr and marked the beginning of the end for the Church's reign over science. Some 350 years later, Pope John Paul II apologised to Galileo.

While some may grumble that the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism means that not much has changed, humanity has long since moved past the point where we expect ideological beliefs to trump those based on scientifically gathered evidence. Science wins out.

Yet evidence abounds that we live today in a dark age for our understanding of the causal basis of human behaviour. But isn't there a truth to the plethora of questions that have vexed social scientists in recent years, such as why crime rates rise and fall? Such questions do have right and wrong answers and, while they may be complicated to investigate, the cause-and-effect relationships behind them all seem amenable to study by the empirical methods of social science. Why, then, have the answers given by social scientists remained such a muddle?

One reason, unfortunately, is that social scientific debate is often fraught with political ideology. In the crime debate, we find a vetting of social theories through a political lens, where some ideas seem championed primarily because they are in sympathy with fashionable political beliefs even though they may not square with the data. When ideology creeps into empirical research, the results are rightly suspect.

Any good statistician can tell you the various ways to cheat: cherry-pick results, use questionable assumptions or proxies for what you are measuring, or simply rerun or narrow your data sets until you get the results that "should" be true. Naturally, there is a stalwart group of methodologically tough-minded social scientists who are outraged at such tactics, who have worked hard to make the social sciences more scientific.

But bad social science tends to drive out good and so make all inquiry into human behaviour seem suspect in the minds of those who cannot believe that any social inquiry could be rigorous or objective. Is it any wonder that policymakers have felt free to ignore social scientific work or to cite only studies that agree with their ideological positions? But it doesn't have to be this way.

Just as in the natural sciences, the way forward is to embrace the "scientific attitude" towards questions that are matters of fact. Once you understand the causal roots of something, you will be in a better position to explain it and use this understanding to solve the problems that have grown up in our ignorance. Potential examples abound in the newly developing field of behavioural economics, in quantitative political science, and, in the past three decades, of work in social psychology. But so far, where is the positive impact of all of this work on the suffering we read about daily in our newspapers?

Once the day comes when we fully embrace the proper attitude about the study of human behaviour and accept it as an apt area for experimental and empirical inquiry, it will be more difficult for politicians to spin the data towards a particular outcome and for social scientists to be ignored. For what could be more persuasive than the truth?

Of course, the first step in coming out of a dark age is to admit that we are in one. As we face the yawning costs of our ignorance over the past several decades - Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 9/11, child prostitution, genocide and torture - how can we doubt that the primary cause of human misery in the world today is human mistreatment of one another? Yet, after 300 years of social science, how little do we understand the problems that humans have created and how much progress have we made to solve them?

Lee McIntyre is research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. His book Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behaviour is published by MIT Press this month.

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