Monday, May 21, 2012

Using social science in public policy

This article on the NYT discusses how reliable social sciences are compared to natural sciences and the implications of that difference for how we form public policy. Here is the main point about the comparison:

Social sciences may be surrounded by the “paraphernalia” of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data and even carefully designed experiments. But when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events. We may have a theory that explains all the known data, but that may be just the result of our having fitted the theory to that data. The strongest support for a theory comes from its ability to correctly predict data that it was not designed to explain.

While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not. The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish and study separately. Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects. As a result, most social science research falls far short of the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments.

I largely agree with this. And it's why I roll my eyes when Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory mocks the social sciences. His brilliance would unlikely provide any better results than actual social scientists because the thing being studied is just so different and more complex than the things natural science studies. Given that, the author comes to this conclusion:

Given the limited predictive success and the lack of consensus in social sciences, their conclusions can seldom be primary guides to setting policy. At best, they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have.

Why, even with the limited predictive success and lack of consensus, couldn't we use social science as a primary guide to setting policy? What can general knowledge, practical experience, or good sense tell us about forming a good policy for evaluating teachers? I don't even know what those things are. General knowledge and practical experience inform our conceptions about good sense and whatever critical intelligence is.

And using those things is a form of science. It's crude. But if I understand what he means by those things, using them is basically taking the data we have gathered and using it to find patterns that we think mean something, which we then use to predict future behavior. That's what social sciences do, just in a more quantitative way and with fewer biases that come with using people's perception of good sense.

It seems to me that the author is just advocating for even less predictive and successful methods than what social sciences give us. Would the author really advocate that we should not use the work of economists in forming economic policy and instead use the good sense of some vague group of people he doesn't define? Actually, Republicans do that, and it's a big reason why they run massive deficits every time they control the gov't.

So my question then is, what else do we have to make public policy if we don't use the work of social sciences? And why would the things he advocates make him feel like they are better?

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