We Have Met the Enemy, and He is (Too Many of) Us

[From the blogpost “Too Many Social Scientists, Too Few Truths to Discover” by Jay P. Greene, posted at his blog]
“I’m teaching a seminar for the Honors College this semester on BS. It’s been a lot of fun and the students have been great.  Last week we were discussing the prevalence of BS in social science.  In particular, we were discussing the problems of file drawer and publication biasp-hacking, and spurious relationships.  While considering why there is so much of this BS in social science we stumbled upon a possible explanation: perhaps there are just too many social scientists under too much pressure to regularly discover and report truths about human behavior when there just aren’t enough truths to be discovered.”
“Roughly estimating, there are at least 2,000 institutions worldwide that give priority to research and expect their faculty to produce it regularly.  And there are at least 50 active researchers in the social sciences at each of those institutions who depend on publishing novel insights about human beings, sometimes annually, in order to obtain and keep their jobs as well as receive promotions. In my back of the envelope calculation, there is demand for “discovering” roughly 100,000 true things about human behavior each year.”
“Now let’s consider the supply side.  My general worldview is that there is a very limited number of universally true things we could say about human behavior.  I’d wager that there are no more than several dozen true things that generally apply to human beings across time, place, and context.  And perhaps there are several hundred more contingently true things, observations that would be true for specified groups of people in particular circumstances.  The number of universally or contingently true observations we could make about human behavior may not exceed a thousand.”
“…If I’m right, several implications follow.  The prevalence of BS in social science, including replication problems, file-drawer and publication bias, p-hacking, etc…, cannot be addressed with improved training or enforcement of more rigorous standards.  The pressure to make claims that are not really true is simply too great to be controlled by ethics or peers facing the same pressure.”
“…I don’t hold out much hope for the social sciences beginning to thin their ranks of researchers … But thinking about the mismatch between how many people are searching for generalizations about human behavior and how many valid generalizations they are able to find is still useful for diagnosing how the social sciences may have gone astray.”
To read the article, click here.

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