Monthly Archives: July 2013

Perils of Writing 800-word Critiques of Social Science in the NYTs

I just sent my last dissertation chapter to my committee for comments, so I am back to blogging after a long hiatus while they decide whether I can graduate.

Today’s post is inspired by a back-and-forth between Andrew Gelman and Nicholas Christakis over an op-ed that Christakis wrote in the NYTs.  Christakis’s thesis is that we should shake up the current (historically contingent) disciplinary structure of the social sciences.  As an evolutionary social scientist who is frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary distinctions between different fields, I agree with much of what is in Christakis’s op-ed. (Though, for the record, Harvard and Princeton are maybe the last places I would look for collaborative interdisciplinary research – more like Arizona State.) I also agree with Gelman’s critique which is essentially about one paragraph.  But these are topics for another post.

This post is about the utility of publishing 800-word critiques of the social science for a general audience.  In his response to Gelman, Christakis wrote:

 As to your original complaint, let me say this: my main point (within a constrained 800-word format, for which the editors write the title, not the authors) is that we can learn something from the natural sciences about institutional forms and about ways of doing science (just as they surely can learn from us).

This is not without precedent.  Last year Kevin Clarke and David Primo also published an 800-word critique of the social sciences in the NYTs.  While I greatly admired their book, when condensed to a 800-word version for a general audience the argument lost a lot of its punch. 

In some sense this is to be expected. Scientific arguments and controversies are hard to distill in a short discussion for general readers without doing the science major harm. Even more difficult, may be making these arguments and controversies that seem so important to the scientists involved, interesting to general readers.  Some, like journalist Carl Zimmer, are masters of writing entertaining, understandable prose for general consumption without misrepresenting the state of the science.  But being Carl Zimmer is not so easy (as my relatives who persevere in reading this blog often remind me – I’ll keep practicing!)

One of the problems with critiquing all of social science is that there are literally tons* of social scientists with very diverse views, methodology, areas of study, and philosophies of science. It is very difficult to paint all of social science with one 800-word brush.  For example, my sense is that Clarke and Primo’s critiques apply much more acutely to their home discipline of political science than to any other social science discipline – which is something they make more clear in their book than the NYT article. Expanding their critique to all of social science might give readers a mistaken impression of the state of other fields.

My other sense is that making these types of distinctions does not help many readers of the NYT absorb the main point of the article – that social scientists should not emulate what they think are natural scientists methodologies (Clarke and Primo) or that social scientists should emulate the way natural scientists structure their disciplines (Christakis).  There may be a trade-off between accessibility and rigor that we non-Carl-Zimmers need to strike when making a general point to a general audience. 

The problem with this is that NYT articles written by distinguished scientists attracts audiences that are not entirely general.  For example, I am much more likely to read an op-ed written by Clarke, Primo or Christakis than I am to read one written by, say, Thomas Friedman or Maureen Dowd (even though the base-rate Friedman and Dowd op-ed writing is much higher). We specialist audiences have much more invested in these discussions, have stronger opinions, and make greater distinctions than the average reader of the NYTs.

This is one of the advantages of the blog format.  As I strive to become more Zimmer-like (maybe I should just drop my name’s last syllable), I have the luxury to err on the side of verbosity and distinction-making.  And I have the luxury of a self-selected audience who come into this with eyes wide open (or are my close relatives).  This gives me a safe, if public, space to develop my voice and ideas and gradually widen the circle to a wider audience.

* – Though, to be fair, this only requires about 27 social scientists assuming (conservatively) a mean weight of 150 pounds (at sea-level).