Sunday, November 29, 2009

Agnosticism in the Social Sciences

Being a social science professor, one becomes accustomed to seeing a variety of different ways of looking at the same problem, same data. These reflect the various methods in the social sciences of organizing data into a worldview. The problem with these data is that they are rarely, if ever, 100% in favor of one particular worldview. Two researchers with different worldviews can look at the same data and claim the data supports each of their views.

As more and more governmental policy comes to rely on social science research as a sort of apologia for the policy, the data gets pushed harder and harder as showing one of a number of potential explanations for the data as being correct. Since the data are rarely inconvtrovertible, using some data to guide or shape governmental policy is exceptionally dangerous, because the policy could entail exactly the wrong thing.

Social science is not hard science - and it's especially not physics. In hard science, from the point of view of a social scientist, there are true answers. The speed of light, for example, is a constant. Nothing can change that. Social science is the study of human action - there can be no universal laws here, because all human action shapes and is shaped by the environment in which it takes place.

What does all this have to do with agnosticism? Just this - in social sciences, we never know the true, or correct, answer. Often, there isn't one. This level of uncertainty should cause us to refrain from making public policy based on social science research, because we simply don't know for sure. I often hear, about some problem plaguing the world, that it is better to do something than nothing. But how do you know? How do you know?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Cranky Prof's First Post

I was finally motivated to communicate something to the anonymous world of the blog. I believe in the importance and desirability of humility, among other things, as a personality trait. My arguments for why it's desirable will wait for another post. This round, I'm going to comment about the lack of humility amongst newly-minted Ph.D.s and the potential problems this creates.

For anyone who doesn't know the path to the Ph.D., it basically consists of a long slog in a narrow field. You gotta read everything (almost) that has come before you in the field, and then add something original of your own to the field. The point to the Ph.D. is to become a researcher in your field, and advance knowledge in the area.

I want to highlight a few personality traits or attributes that are necessary to get a Ph.D. in most cases. I say in most cases because there are a few exceptions, as always. The first trait is curiosity. This is an absolute requirement because otherwise you will get bored, tired, and walk away from the program. It takes a long time to go through all the history in a field, and it can get tremendously boring if you aren't curious enough.

The second trait is discipline. This tends to go along with curiosity, but it's the trait of being able to sit and concentrate for long periods of time and think deeply about an issue. The curiosity motivates you to look at the topic; the discipline keeps your butt in the seat.

These two traits, discipline and curiosity, are the only necessar traits to get a Ph.D. in most fields that I'm familiar with: humanities and social sciences. The hard sciences, especially those that are highly mathematical, require a the third: a high degree of quantitative intelligence. You need a lot of horse-power to crank through all those equations. Not to say that you can't learn the math if you're not terribly smart, but it is to say that mastery of the field requires a special level of mathematical intelligence and discipline and curiosity.

By and large, though, most Ph.D. holders are not especially gifted people - they have an above average level of discipline and curiostiy for their topic, however. This leads us to be especially well-versed in our own narrow field, which is desirable, since that's the knowledge we're trying to build. However, and here's the point of this post, getting the Ph.D. often leads people to believe their own hype, and think they in fact are quite intelligent.

This has gotten to be long enough, and I'm in the habit of writing lengthy pieces. As it is my first post, I think I'll leave off here, and pick up this topics again later.