march for science

Of Course Social Scientists Should Participate in the March for Science

Next month, scientists — tens of thousands of them, organizers hope — will descend on Washington, D.C., for the March for Science. The goal of the event, according to its website, is to highlight “[r]ecent policy changes [that] have caused heightened worry among scientists,” and to make the case that the “mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”

Since social science is a big chunk of, well, science, it’s safe to say that many of the marchers will be social scientists. But writing in Quillette on March 3, Clay Routledge, a University of North Dakota psychologist, argued that “the social sciences are currently too compromised to help the cause. Even those who have the best intentions risk doing more harm than good.” Compromised how? One argument Routledge makes is that there is a lot of postmodernism-infused silliness going on at the edges of social science — think, to take one of the examples he raises, arguments that the scientific method itself is inherently a tool to promote the patriarchy and white supremacy. But “social science” is a really big, loose term, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it includes within it a huge range of stuff, some of that stuff perhaps less empirically based and rigorous. It’s unclear why the presence of some somewhat-out-there sociology and so forth should disqualify social scientists from participating in the March.

Routledge’s more substantive argument about social science’s supposed compromisation has to do with the replication crisis. The root of social science’s current problem, as Routledge sees it, is that there’s a serious lack of ideological diversity — most social scientists are left-of-center and many are, generally speaking, sympathetic to what can broadly be called “social justice” concerns.

This has opened the door to a lot of confirmation bias and groupthink, Routledge argues:

[A] number of the psychological concepts social scientists and activists have used to support social justice-oriented interventions and policies have not stood up well to empirical scrutiny. Take, for instance, the concept of stereotype threat. Psychologists proposed that female math performance is undermined by the existence and situational awareness of the stereotype that women are bad at math. However, the stereotype threat explanation of women’s math performance has failed multiple replication attempts. Meta-analyses have offered no support for the idea. And the original supporting research has been widely criticized as having many methodological and statistical problems. Still, many social scientists, activists, and college administrators continue to teach and champion the idea.

Unfortunately, the stereotype threat example is not an anomaly. The concept of unconscious or implicit biases as measured by the implicit association test (IAT) has also received considerable criticism. Many social scientists, activists, college administrators, and science journalists, have made empirically unsupported or exaggerated claims about the predictive power of the test while neglecting to mention or consider its many problems and limitations. More generally, the term unconscious bias is carelessly and unscientifically employed by many, including social scientists who should know better, to explain outcomes they find personally undesirable.

The microagression concept is another example. Again, many academics, activists, and college administrators are enamored with it, without scientific justification. Psychology professor Scott O. Lilienfeld summed it up perfectly with the title of his very thorough articleMicroaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence.

Even setting aside the fact that Routledge seems to have just as much beef with “activists, college administrators, and science journalists” as with social scientists themselves, one thing you might notice about each and every link in this excerpt (the IAT link is to my long story on the subject from January) is that most of this debunking was done by — wait for it — social scientists. This is a common sequence of events in social science: A big, sexy theory pops up, telling people a deeply satisfying story and garnering a bunch of headlines — and sometimes winning speaking fees, book deals, and other perks in the process — and then some other social scientists come along and say, Hey, not too fast.

Now, ideally, people would chill out a bit and not embrace these ideas with such enthusiasm in the first place; ideally, social scientists themselves wouldn’t go from an exciting but one-off study on a Monday to a sweepingly inspirational TED Talk on a Tuesday. But, as flawed as things are, the fact that we can point to these ideas as troubled or false shows that the scientific process is working. It’s not working as well as it should be, and it needs a tune-up, for sure; but it certainly seems as though, in this era of replication-crisis concern, it’s getting harder and harder for shoddy ideas — even ones that tell inspiring or infuriating stories about social justice that everyone wants to believe — to get a free pass.

Which brings us back to the March. The point of an event like this is to stand up for science in the most general sense — the March’s organizers note that it is “about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world,” as the mission page puts it. “Nevertheless, the March has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: Can we afford not to speak out in its defense?” The idea that social scientists are somehow disqualified from participating in this discussion because of the replication crisis simply doesn’t make sense — the stakes here are larger and broader than the very real problems in psychology and other fields.

Zooming out a little, conservatives in the U.S. have long been trying to cut social-science funding. So part of the point of a march and movement like this one is to show that there is a big, organized group of people who won’t stand for such cuts, which are surely on the horizon. And if, like Clay Routledge, you’re concerned about the quality of social science, the prospect of a federal government that doesn’t respect science, and which is therefore inclined to cut funding for social science, should concern you greatly. You need social-science funding for the sort of self-policing that leads to bad ideas getting shot down. Without it, a smaller and smaller group of powerful institutions will get to dictate what’s studied — and what’s considered “true.” You can respect Harvard and Yale and not want them to have a monopoly on what subjects get studied, and on what questions get asked. Harvard, after all, has played a key role in overhyping the IAT, and one of the leading critics of it, Hart Blanton, has mostly been based at a public institution, the University of Connecticut.

That’s just one story, of course, but the point is that you don’t need to think social science is perfect, or that there are no problems with the relationship between social science and social justice, to understand the need to stand up for science as a flawed and complicated but vitally important enterprise — one that our elected leaders simply must respect if they want to be taken seriously by the public. Routledge is presenting a false choice: There’s no reason social scientists can’t go to the March for Science and continue to work to improve the quality of their disciplines.

Yes, Social Scientists Should Go to the March for Science