The Dark Ages of Social Science

By McIntyre, Lee | The Humanist, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Dark Ages of Social Science


McIntyre, Lee, The Humanist


IN EARLY 2006 five hundred economists electronically signed their names to an open letter to President George W. Bush, trying to convince him that immigration is a net gain for the American economy. But why was this necessary? Was it because American policymakers were ignoring widespread consensus on the issue? Or was it merely the latest propaganda in a debate that threatens to become more about politics than social science?

Can one imagine a group of physicists trying to lobby heads of state in support of their astronomical or physical theory? Actually we can. In the "dark ages" of natural science (which arguably lasted long after the Renaissance liberated European art, music, and literature from the grip of scholastic ideology) 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 audience with the pope, trying to convince him not to reject the new telescopic evidence supporting Copernican theory merely because it conflicted with scripture. Galileo failed and ultimately drew a lifetime prison sentence from the Catholic Church that made him a martyr and marked the beginning of the end for the church's reign over science. Three hundred and fifty years later, Pope John Paul II apologized to Galileo.

While some may grumble that not much has changed, case in point being the Bush administration's head-in-the-sand rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus about global warming caused by human activity, the outrage that many feel over such ignorance can bolster our commitment to once and for all move past the point where we allow ideological beliefs to trump those based on scientifically gathered evidence. We may not always like what science tells us, but its progress leaves us little choice when trying to reconcile beliefs based on experimental evidence with those based on faith and wishful thinking.

Still, evidence abounds that today we live in a "dark age" for our understanding of the causal basis of human behavior--gut instinct, superstition, and political ideology left and right happily trump the nascent efforts of empirical social scientists to figure out what makes us tick. The question of whether immigration is a net plus for the American economy is a good case in point. Why was it necessary for so many economists to assert so strongly--in a public forum no less--that immigration is good for America? Was it because social scientists are all on the same side of this issue? The scholarly research belies such a conclusion. Cynically, a more likely alternative is that the case in favor of immigration was put so strongly not because the evidence is so overwhelming, but rather because the studies on this issue have remained so equivocal.

Over the last thirty years, numerous studies have shown that immigration is a net plus to the U.S. economy. A nearly equal number have shown that immigration has a net cost, and a handful have concluded that it has no effect at all. But how can this be? Like physical reality, isn't there a truth to the question of the economic impact of immigration? Likewise, isn't there a truth to the plethora of other questions that have vexed social scientists in recent years, like what led to the drop in crime in the United States in the mid-1990s (and why rates are slowly creeping back up again) and whether more stringent gun control might possibly have a crime-enhancing (and not just a crime-inhibiting) effect as it reduces not only the availability of guns to lawbreakers but also presumably many defensive gun uses as well? Yes, these questions all have right and wrong answers, and even though 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 that influences the outcome of what should be empirical study. …

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