On the demand for social science
Choosing a Topic: Some Very Bad Advice
Like any other good, scientific discovery is affected by supply and demand. Some of the demand for science is effectively private. If you invent a small enough laser, somewhere down the line, you can build a CD player. Applied research, even in universities, is backed by an infrastructure of firms and venture capital on the lookout for new ideas.
Social science isn’t like that. Ideas about society can rarely be brought to market. There are interesting exceptions: good ideas about financial instruments can make you very rich indeed; business schools claim to teach useful skills and, well, maybe. Most social science, though, is about social arrangements which cannot be changed by a single individual. We make policy recommendations, not products. Our ultimate consumer is the public.
For any scientific discovery, either
1. people want to believe it;
2. they don’t want to believe it;
3. or they don’t care.
About the physical sciences, mostly, people don’t care. I am not bothered whether light is a particle or a wave. It doesn’t make me angry that dinosaurs have feathers. (Okay, I felt a twinge when they said Neptune wasn’t a planet.) It wasn’t always so. The Catholic hierarchy cared deeply about whether the earth went round the sun, because their authority depended on a holy book which they had interpreted as saying it didn’t. Those days are gone. Rome accepts Galileo and even Darwin. Physical scientists can do world-changing research without making anyone cross.
People do care about social arrangements. If enough people believe in a flat tax, or UBI, we’ll end up with it, and some people will get richer and others poorer. This means that people are materially interested in social science. As a result, a lot more of social science falls into categories 1 and 2. And since social science must be paid for by the public, and democratic governments, contrary to a widespread prejudice, tend to do what people want, they prefer research that proves what most people want to believe – in fact, what most people believe already. Funding is distributed accordingly.
This means that social scientists have a non-trivial choice. They can do research that people want to believe. They can do research that people don’t want to believe. Or they can do research people don’t care about.
The bold rogue usually picks category 1. The rewards for telling people what they want to believe are grants, publications and prestige. This is the best way to become an important academic. Important has a specific meaning here. It means that you as a person are socially important. It doesn’t mean your research is important. You told people what they thought already. Your research changed nothing. That’s what it was funded for. (Isn’t keeping things the same, in its way, an important form of impact?)
Wait, you say, how can I do research that people want to believe? Surely I run the risk of finding out the opposite? How touchingly naïve. People don’t mainly have false beliefs. Conservatives have true beliefs and liberals too. They have the true beliefs that agree with their prejudices. The other stuff, they just don’t think about. Suppose you want to tell people, say, that society is profoundly sexist. Well, is there no sexism in society? Of course there is! So you do research on that. There are well-established research traditions on the topic. They consist of ways to find that society is profoundly sexist.
More timid souls pick category 3: research that doesn’t interest the public. That might seem hard, given that people are materially interested in social science. Don’t worry, there are ways. Find an abstruse enough topic. Add curlicues to the existing literature. Fill, as the joke goes, a much-needed gap. Mançur Olson said most social scientists had “an instinct for the capillaries”. The advantage of this approach is, you have the chance to find out things that people didn’t already know. The disadvantage is, they didn’t know for a reason.
Category 2 is rarer. It would be too cynical to say non-existent. What the majority disapproves of may find a constituency elsewhere. To cast your research in the teeth of the majority, you may need to appeal to the very wealthy. In a society already run by the rich, you really have a problem. To do research, and simultaneously create the constituency for it, takes a prophet and workaholic. This is how Karl Marx got his carbuncles.
You may be prepared to utter unpopular truths. You may enjoy a fight. The hero of L’Etranger looks forward to having a crowd of spectators at his execution: “et qu'ils m'accueillent avec des cris de haine.” Unfortunately, even in the age of Twitter, society can only afford a limited number of show trials and public executions. The real fate of most controversial research is not to be controversial at all. There is plenty of work which goes against conventional wisdom. It isn’t execrated. It’s just ignored.
Eventually, if you are persistent enough, and right enough, the tide may turn. The empirical patterns get just too clear to ignore. A crack forms in the consensus. First, they laughed at you. Then they fought you. Now you win! Finally, you may get to see well-respected figures in the field adopting your ideas.
They won’t cite you, of course.
This rather cynical piece was inspired by some research I’m doing at the moment. It’s almost ready to come out. I don’t suppose it will lead to a hate mob, but it might be a little controversial… watch this space.
If you liked this content, I am writing a book.