Hi Everyone! My name is Jamie and way back in 2008 I sent an email to Rebecca saying I was interested in becoming a Skepchick. Needless to say, I didn’t make the cut. I spent the next five years slowly infiltrating my way into the inner circle of Skepchicks, by way of alcohol and unrestrained enthusiasm, until they finally gave in and asked me to join the team. I cannot tell you how excited I am to start blogging here on Skepchick.
First of all, a little bit about me. My background is in statistics and economics, especially as it relates to public policy. You might have heard my name mentioned here before. That’s because I’m the Vice President and Skeptical Ninja (yes, official job title!) of Women Thinking, inc. My official job duties are helping to run the Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated campaign, saving the world, and fetching drinks for our president, Elyse.
But, enough about me, lets talk about social science! This is my area of expertise, which I like to think makes me half-scientist. Often social science is called “soft science” as compared with the “hard science” of the natural science fields. But, these terms can be quite misleading. In fact, the social sciences, which deal with human behavior and societies, are often attempting to answer far more complex problems than the natural sciences. It also means that the answers researchers come up with to big social science questions often have far less evidence to back them up and are more controversial than is typical in natural science fields. Conclusions tend to be much fuzzier and not based on experimental data. This is why, as a skeptic, you should be extra careful when interpreting the results of a new and exciting social science study.
As an example, let’s take the question “What caused violent crime rates in the US to rise through the 20th century, peak in the early nineties, then steadily decline?”
This question is far too complex to be able to design an experiment that answers it. Instead, social scientists must use a variety of methods to build evidence for various theories. Unlike most science, however, they will never come up with a solid answer. Ever. What they will do is come up with a variety of likely answers weighted based on their likelihood of contributing to the answer.
Kevin Drum, a blogger at MotherJones, recently attempted to answer this question by claiming that the rise and later decrease in crime was caused, at least in part, by changes in lead in the atmosphere caused by gasoline. He provides a whole slew of convincing evidence:
We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.
This is, perhaps, a best-case scenario for a social science theory. There is overwhelming evidence of the connection between lead and crime. So, mystery solved, right? That’s at least what the media seems to be reporting. Even the anti-vaccine bloggers at AutismOne have picked up on this as proof of the evils of toxins in the atmosphere.
Not so. The truth is that, like all social science problems, we will never really know the answer. We will never get to a Theory of Evolution-esque amount of surety. Even in a best-case scenario like this one, the most we can say is that lead almost certainly had something to do with the increase and subsequent decrease in the crime in the last 50 years, though how much is unclear.
Does this mean that social science is useless? I certainly don’t think so. Just because we can never get to the amount of evidence necessary to prove a theory doesn’t mean we can’t learn enough to act on it. Policies to lower lead in the atmosphere are much cheaper to implement with potentially greater gains than other crime-fighting measures. We might never be able to completely quantify it the way we might be able to quantify the mass of an electron or calculate the orbital period of an exoplanet, but using social science we can make fuzzy estimates good enough for use in making decisions that make our world a better place to live.
Ninja image by the talented Jill Powell.