Nicholas Cristakis’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” has a lot of things going for it. I appreciate his call for more hands-on teaching of research methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the application of social scientific knowledge. To make this point, unfortunately, he mischaracterizes the social sciences as “stagnated”, “boring”, “counterproductive”, and “insecure”. He calls on us to “change the basic DNA of the social sciences” in order to “evolv[e] with the times” as the natural sciences have. What’s more, his piece mischaracterizes the natural sciences in important ways. Christakis’s piece is remarkably data-free and lacks any concrete reference to the social-scientific work it stigmatizes and merely asserts our dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t have much space and was writing for a popular audience, which probably explains this fact. An account of how the social and natural sciences actually work, however, makes clear that the difficulties of the social sciences stem from quite different sources then those that Christakis points to.
The first and most obvious difficulty that the social sciences face is funding, pure and simple. Compared to the natural sciences, we receive peanuts. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NSF got roughly 5.5 billion dollars from Congress to spend on research. Before you press the ‘Read More…’ link in this article, ask yourself “what percent of that was spent on social sciences?”
The answer is 4% — the only area of research that the NSF funded less was the Arctic Research Commission, whose US$1.39 million dollar appropriation is the invisible sliver labeled ‘0%’ on the pie chart.
4% of the NSF research budget comes out to just over US$242 million dollars. Of that 242 million, only 38% — just around 92 million — goes to social sciences.
Stop for a second — especially those of you in the natural sciences reading this — and try to imagine what all natural scientific research country in this country would look like if you had a budget of US$92 million. I am very proud to say that my mother is a research scientist (and became one, by the way, when women didn’t have it as easy in science as they do now (which is still not very easy)). I’m hardly her accountant, but the last time we talked about her work, her lab was working through about US$3 million in funding for five years. This means that if the natural sciences were funded the way the social sciences are, there would roughly thirty natural scientists working in the United States today.
Of course, this comparison is incredibly simplistic — there are multiple sources of funding beyond the NSF (although there are more for natural sciences than social sciences), multi-year grants make this sort of estimation difficult, the cost of science varies widely by field, and so on. But the point should be clear: to a first approximation, the reason that the natural sciences are doing 96% better than the social sciences is that they receive 96% more funding.
In fact, there is a congressional war against social science. An entire discipline is being targeted. These are not recent moves made in response to ‘inertia’ or ‘failure’ in the social sciences. Rather, the social sciences have always been secondary to sciences which more directly serve federal goals (which are, to make a long story short, global military supremacy, especially as regards nuclear weapons, aeronautics, and space research).
According to Christakis, “the social sciences have stagnated” because “They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years.” To be sure, there are important links between the institutionalization of academic disciplines and their intellectual content. But to judge progress and development merely by these institutional measures is patently ridiculous. Prior to moving to Yale, Christakis had an appointment at Harvard Medical School, an institution that was founded in 1782. Yet no one would accuse Christakis of using leaches to cure headaches. Equally, many have argued that my own discipline, anthropology, has fallen into a hopeless miasma of postmodernism from which it will never recover. This supposedly drastic decline has happened without our discipline changing names. Disciplines change. The names stay the same. Using superficial analysis of administrative arrangements to diagnose scientific progress is reckless practice.
Additionally, it is patently ridiculous to argue that the social sciences have been stagnating for a century. Most of them are just barely a century old, if that. The American Sociological Association was formed in 1908. The American Political Science Association was formed in 1903. The American Anthropological Association was founded in 1902. Most historians of anthropology argued that modern scientific anthropology did not solidify until 1920. The same is true in Britain. A hundred years ago, anthropology did not exist. Papua New Guinea, the country I study, was not mapped. And yet today we have a wealth of data on the country and developed sophisticated understandings of social organization there. To argue otherwise is simply to ignore (or be ignorant of) extremely basic facts about the history of the social sciences.
Unfortunately, with the contraction of research at the end of the cold war, there is a real danger that progress will stop in the areas we study simply because there is no money to fund graduate students and no faculty positions in the academy to support basic research. My generation, generation x, came of age with a large cohort of baby boomers who revolutionized anthropology of the Pacific. Today I doubt that I will produce enough students to reproduce this expertise. To this extent, Christakis is correct: the social sciences are stagnating and contracting because they are being starved to death.
Christakis claims that “One reason citizens…lack confidence in the social sciences is that social scientists too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers.” This is completely true. My discipline of anthropology has declared victory and moved on to new frontiers several times in the course of my career. However, we rarely have a chance to explain our findings to the public because the public finds them so unintuitive. As a result popular anthropology is left explaining again and again and again the most preliminary findings of our discipline — the low-hanging fruits regarding cultural relativism and the underdetermination of conduct by biology that we figured out in the 1920s. Anthropologists could do more, of course, to move public opinion by writing frequently for the public.
It has certainly done so in the past (think: Margaret Mead). But given the decreasing personnel and funding of our discipline, few of us have the time to do this. If only 1% of scientist are able and willing to write for the public, and that means there will be 2 anthropologists writing for the public and 200 in the natural sciences.
To be sure, the social sciences are not the only disciplines in this situation. Christakis writes that “the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences,” because of our “inertia”, “insecurity”, and “conservatism”. The assumption seems to be that natural sciences are prestigious because they are making “progress”. This is not true. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the natural sciences are not prestigious. Many Americans are committed to cosmological views in which angels and other supernatural powers exist and are an active force in the world. They rightly see the natural sciences as enemies of their beliefs rather than prestigious sources of practically useful. Many Americans take the claims of a former Playboy model more seriously than those of medical science when it comes to the seemingly straightforward issue of vaccinating children.
In fact, the natural sciences have the cachet that they do because of a massive effort to make people believe in the veracity and utility of natural science. This includes socialization into the scientific world view at a very young age, including mandatory natural science classes in school. As the father of a three year old, I am acutely aware of incredible intensity of messaging my children receive about how desirable space exploration is, and how important it is to continue discovering More Dinosaurs. Of course, both my wife and I are ridiculously over-educated and consider the claims of science credible, so maybe this just reflects our own viewing choices. But basic common-sense should confirm that most American children are introduced to the natural sciences, while they are not exposed (if they are ever exposed) to the social sciences until they are in college.
In addition to socializing Americans into finding science credibly and prestigious, natural scientists work closely with journalists to create a massive PR machine which casts science as prestigious and scientists as authoritative speakers of truth. Science magazine now regularly publishes not only scientific articles, but journalistic reportage. In his book Dawn of the Deed John Long described in detail the incredibly media spectacle that was whipped up to make people interested in the fact that he had discovered how extinct fish had sex. Examples could be multiplied. The point is that all of this takes money, which the social sciences don’t have. Much of it also, by the way, helps cultivate an awe of the lab coat which is the exact opposite of the critical and questioning mindset which is the true hallmark of science.
The amazing thing about science is not its prestige, but how little people believe in it, despite the tremendous amount of time and money spent trying to get them to believe in it. To the extent that STEM gets traction in the broader public, it is because people believe (for reasons that may not be good) that somehow getting a degree in chemistry will lead to job security. As the credential arms race grows more intense, the natural sciences have become the new plumbing.
There is a lot more to be said about Christakis’s short article. He radically underestimates the difficulties of including human subjects research in undergraduate teaching and seems not to understand that may human problems admit of more than one technical solution, which makes their solution a matter for democratic deliberation, not technocratic engineering. That said, he also gets a lot right: despite the difficulties, we should do more methods teaching. Social scientists do need to do a better job explaining to the public what we do. And yes, while the underlying context of his article: “I am the next Stephen Pinker, buy my book” is a little clunky, he does do interesting work. But like many people, Christakis seems to need to make other people small to make himself look big. That’s not the sort of generosity we should show to our colleagues and, more to the point, it requires an understanding of the state of mainstream social science which is simply incorrect.