Friday, May 13, 2011

Blind spots?

What are the blind spots of each social science?

We usually can't tell from a popular press summary of someone's work whether they've done it competently, whether they've avoided the laundry list of pitfalls we can think of as we read the article. Since we don't usually have the time to track down every article and see for ourselves, we are left to make snap judgments about the likely reliability of the author. For better or worse, when the author is in another field, they typically get saddled with the general perceived competency of the rest of their field.

For example, a typical news article about an economist's research will contain causal claims: "She finds that a rise in X causes Y to go up." But the newspaper description of the actual evidence supporting this causal claim almost always discusses correlation, nothing more: "In the data, a rise in X is linked to a rise in Y." There's nothing there to tell us whether or not the economist has her head screwed on right (after all, that discussion would usually be too complicated for a newspaper). Nevertheless, she is an economist, so we can be pretty sure she isn't flatly confused about the difference between correlation and causation. We can be pretty sure that if we read the paper, we'll find a lot of space devoted to teasing causation out of the data. That's not to say we'd ultimately find the argument successful, just that we don't reject the results outright on the grounds that this silly economist has confused correlation with causation.

But of course, that is a perspective on economists, from within economics. What I would like to see is a lengthy list of the blind spots of each social science. Maybe it would wake people up within a field, but at the moment I am more interested in people knowing how much they can trust results from other fields. I want to know what I should be comfortable assuming about psychologists, when I read about their studies in the news and elsewhere...and I want to know without having to go read a ton of psychology. Someone who can do that better than I, has already done the reading, and I would like them to share their insights.

Anyone know of a good source? I am looking for perspectives on all social sciences from all other social sciences. It's possible that if you asked the question "What are the blind spots of each social science" in the right place, it would have a good chance of taking off in the blogosphere...

No comments:

Post a Comment