21 July 2013

Let’s Shake Up The Arrogance: A Reply to Nicholas A. Christakis

Writing in the “New York Times” Nicholas A. Christakis posits that the social sciences have stagnated. Using as his point of reference the decline and disappearance of departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology, Christakis claims that “taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times”. And the outcome has been whole new fields, discoveries, majors, and everything that Christakis takes to be self-evidently good and right and novel.

What’s needed, Christakis suggests, is for a small rear guard to close once and for all discussions of the old-fashioned topics such as “monopoly power, racial profiling, and health inequality” and move the social sciences on. Vanguard social scientists, he says, should get into the serious business of talking about social neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and behavioural economics. And, ultimately, we should all spend our time being moral entrepreneurs for biology:-
It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science. Eventually, these departments would themselves be dismantled or transmuted as science continues to advance.

Why do social scientists supposedly need to do these things? Because the institutions of social science need to match today’s intellectual challenges, which according to Christakis, they don’t now.

The arrogance of this argument is simply breathtaking. Consider the entrance supposition. Christakis claims that the disappearance of anatomy, histology, biochemistry, and physiology represents the natural evolution of science and that this pattern is one social science should emulate.

There is a rule, and a quite good one, in the sociology of professions; namely, beware metaphors of growth.  Christakis is either woefully ignorant of the literature in his own field or he is cynically deploying the very linguistic technologies generations of sociologists decoded as they studied the emergence of professions, disciplines, and specialties. Simply put, there was no natural extinction of those sciences from the academy. The evolutionary metaphor might offer a tidy narrative about the natural order to the dissolution of those fields, but what factually happened, as any even modestly-well read historian or sociologist should know, is that government funding for certain types of natural sciences activity dried-up.

Far from an evolution, this was an intentioned extinction. Universities, having often become dependent upon government largess, changed administratively and re-organized themselves to continue to chase funding. Physiology, for example, did not naturally become neuroscience. Physiologists rightly detected that their research funding would continue if they began identifying themselves as neurobiologists.  That wasn’t evolution. And it wasn’t progress either. It was measuring the exact same problems with institutionally different sticks to get differently ear-marked sources of funding.

But ignore this point, and consider the arrogance of suggesting that it was a good thing that departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry, and physiology went the way of the dodo. The conceit of this claim comes from two quite separate directions. It firstly and implausibly suggests that students are able to learn everything they need to know in other places about those now deceased fields to be conversant sufficiently to understand the now more highly evolved scientific species that have replaced them. Here the evolutionary narrative falls apart completely – the transformation of species creates new species. But the sciences of physiology, biochemistry, etc. etc. remain as significant now as they did in the past. The difference is that we have a whole generation of students now who are going to have to go about relearning the things their arrogant administrators and professors denied them because of institutional exigencies.
Christakis secondly implies that he believes in the evolutionary progress of science. Yet that very progress should be cumulative and so the disappearance of fields because of funding exigencies and politics should be regretted by any thoughtful person. His version of progress is rather like removing math departments because we have calculators. That Christakis doesn’t see the irony of his position; that he seems unconcerned by the diminished autonomy of universities and researchers; and that he seemingly lauds by insisting on the validity of what Philip Mirowski calls the progress of science-mart, suggests that Christakis doesn’t much value even the autonomy of the natural sciences. Small wonder, then, that he should be so dismissive of the social sciences.
Christakis’ polemic hardly stops with his poor caricature of how things have happened in the natural sciences – after all he says that social scientists should refashion themselves into the image of the natural scientists. Why should they do this? Because everyone agrees with the old, tired refrains of sociology. So it is time to move and join the flavour of the month club in neoliberal science.
But excuse me – wait a second! Isn’t Christakis admitting that the social sciences have actually discovered a few things that ‘everyone now agrees with’? And, if so, then doesn’t that imply that since some of these things are true, the challenge of the times for social scientists is to help people see that many of our intellectual challenges today remain the same as they did a century ago? If everyone agrees that monopoly capitalism, racial prejudice, and health inequality are bad, then why haven’t those challenges been fixed?
Christakis seems to think that the fact that everyone agrees about these problems is a sufficient condition for considering them solved. Would that this utopian fantasy were true! Indeed, I’d suggest that the persistence of these social conditions actually suggests that some of those very smart natural scientists that Christakis lauds so much should quit their jobs in cloistered laboratories and begin to help social scientists address the problems upon which now apparently everyone agrees. Of course the point that Christakis elides is that any number of people don’t agree with the social scientists on any of these issues. In this sense, Christakis has proffered a fantastically, irresponsible argument.
Christakis wonders why social science students are not asked to engage in laboratory research. I wonder why scientists are not required to read more social science. 

Christakis suggests that students could be encouraged to conduct randomized experiments on internet populations. Leaving to one side the ethical implications of that suggestion, consider instead that Christakis is implying that the laboratory is the only place where true knowledge is made. I wonder what Darwin was up to then when he was trekking around South America? And why specifically would something involving ‘modelling’ – which is apparently what Christakis means for undergraduates to be doing – require a ‘laboratory’. Why wouldn’t a really powerful computer in a dorm room with access to demographic databases be sufficient to create knowledge? And whither ethnography or anthropology or oral history?

Christakis also seems to deny that some knowledge could be gained through a visit to the university library. And, that, by the way, might also be true for the natural scientists too. I’d argue that we would produce better scientists and students if they had a deeper grasp of the scholarly literature in many fields. Evolutionary psychologists, for instance, should read at a minimum Emil Durkheim and Max Weber (hardly esoteric figures of the Western scholarly canon).

But as is so often the case, authors who write with the pompous urgency that Christakis adopts seldom seem to see scholarship in a reciprocal light - it is the social scientists who are supposed to read-up on the science literature and not the other way around. Perhaps we should take it as axiomatic that before any natural scientist should tell us how to do social science, they should evidence some actual knowledge about what social scientists have been doing and saying for the last century. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that social scientists are far more conversant with trends and discoveries in the natural sciences, than the other way around.     

The irony, of course, is that many of the things social scientists have explored and do know quite a bit about – problems of trust, the status of objectivity, economics, the multiplicity of narrative, patronage, regulation, class, racism, monopoly power – are exactly the types of knowledge that are bound to present something of a criticism of the new fields Christakis sees as emergent and ascendant.

It is true that social scientists find themselves often bewildered by the questions being asked in those fields which Christakis suggests will shake them up. But they are not bewildered by the statistics, methodolotry, metricidolotry, models, or jargon. They are bewildered by the banality, the poor historical knowledge, and the single-minded, blinkered ignorance of the social science canon. Many in Christakis' vanguard sciences postulate that they are in the business of doing something new. They expect us to believe it and bow to their claim. Christakis’s lauding of physical anthropology (i.e. human evolutionary biology) is a case in point. It sounds neat, vanguard, and even that bit edgy given its evolutionary underpinnings. Too bad that it is a project that has been around – oh, since, Darwin, Huxley, Crichton-Browne, and others. And genetics doesn’t make it new and shiny either. It just used to be called eugenics.

The social sciences do not need defending. Their value and contribution to civil society, political economy, industrial management, accounting, archaeology, environmental engineering, civil engineering, urban development, polling and surveying, agricultural management, actuarial practice, demography, economics, and, yes, biological science is so self-evident and historically obvious that it is only possible to ignore this fact by living in a closed world where shouting in a cave compels and convinces the person shouting that the rebounding sound is truth.
Anyone who is paying attention at all knows that the natural sciences, engineering, the social sciences, the humanities, and the university writ large have been having a bad time as of late. Among the great sins that have created the endemic risks to the university have been the perpetual and schizophrenic attempts to make science faddish. Neuroscience has of late fallen dramatic victim to this tendency, but it was hardly the first science to do. These trends have been on-going since the 1970s. In many instances, they have damaged public understanding of science. They have promoted cultures of anti-science, so much so that anti-vaccination beliefs – for instance – have become rampant. Christakis proposes, however, to ignore all of this; he proposes to refashion the social sciences into this corrupt image of the natural sciences. Too bad for the natural sciences, for natural scientists might stand to gain a great deal more by standing with their social science colleagues who declare this the fool’s errand it is.

There is a final irony worthy of drawing out. It pertains to the indelicate timing of Christakis’s essay, which appeared just as news of Detroit’s bankruptcy began circulating in newspapers. What explanations could neuroeconomics, human evolutionary biology, network science, biosocial science and computation social science give us for the disaster that has become third-world Michigan? What could those fields tell us of the human costs there? Obviously Christakis implies that much of the social science that might usefully analyze those events has been settled, but it is strikingly difficult to think of any macro-level contribution that could come from these would be usurpers of social science that would not in the first instance be derivative of Christakis’ putative, old-fashioned, obsolete social science. And, curiously, were the social sciences to undergo the demise that Christakis’ desires, there would be very few left in universities who would have anything to say at all about these macro-level cataclysms that have destroyed thousands of peoples' lives. What would be left would be an unkind nihilism.


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