The Long and Winding Post

How to start? Maybe with a bit of academic humour:

You know the expression That's not rocket science. A few years back two journalists wondered what rocket scientists would say if they wanted convey the same idea. They asked some of them and got the answer that they'd say: "That's not theoretical physics." The natural next step was to ask the practicioners of theoretical physics. The guy they asked said: "Oh, we say: 'That's not sociological theory.'"

Some people find this funny.

I had to think of this joke when I re-read this, from Seth Roberts, based on a conversation he had with a student at the California College of the Arts:
Every department looks down on every other department. Or, at least, there is a vast amount of “looking down on”. One example is that students in the illustration department look down on students in the fashion department. This is puzzling because the two subjects are unrelated (unlike, say, graphic design and illustration, which are closely related). Why does it happen? My informant thought it was because so many people looked down on illustrators that they were desperate to find a group they themselves could look down on; they chose fashion even though it made no sense.
When I was a student, there was a lot of mutual looking-down-on between sociology and business majors, and I'll venture the guess that it's the same at each and every German university. What business majors thought about sociology majors: Leftish waffleheads who don't wash. (In my experience, the first two aspects of this stereotype are not wholly undeserved.) What sociology majors thought about business majors: Superficial right-wingers who only care about money. (The only business major I ever got to know somewhat closely was very nice. I've been told by somebody who should know that the stereotype is largely accurate. But that someone was a sociology major.)

I'm pretty certain that's a general human tendency: If you can look down on someone, this increases your psychological well-being. And thinking in terms of ingroup/outgroup comes naturally to humans.

Seth has also repeatedly complained that scientists put too much weight on methodological rigour. In a post I can't re-find, he had a story about a researcher who wanted to look into an important problem, but was unable to arrange a double-blind randomized controlled trial. As a consequence, she did no research whatsoever. Which I agree is regrettable. Don't get me wrong: I'm not against methodological rigour at all - I'm a fan. But I'd rather have some imperfect infomation than none.

(An aside: I once read an article which showed, using a sample of undergraduates, that students who played more violent video games displayed more violence in their daily lives. "Bah", I thought, "only a cross-section! While the authors think this strengthens their case for violent video games causing aggression, it does not, because this is just as easily explained by people who have a taste for violence both playing more violent games and displaying more real-life violence." What I didn't realize was that both hypotheses suggested a positive correlation, so this was a bit of useful research: Had there been no or a negative correlation, this would have suggested both hypotheses are wrong.)

So, if scientists put too much weight on methodological rigour, why is this so? One reason, I think, is simply that they get this stuff drilled into their heads when they're students: how to do a randomized controlled trial, for example. Another one brings us back to the beginning: People want to distance themselves from and look down on others.

I have a bit of an education in scientific methodology. An anecdote: I once talked to someone at a bar about adolescents' sexual behaviour. I talked about random samples and the social desirability bias. He told me I was "a believer in science" and declared that "I believe what I see and hear". My eyes are still out of focus due to all of the rolling they did that night.

People who understand "The Scientific Method" tend to look down on people who don't, just like students in the illustration department look down on students in the fashion department. Insisting on methodological rigour is a way of doing that; it's also a way of assuring yourself you're part of the ingroup.

I wonder what Thorstein Veblen would say about this post.

No comments: