Who do social scientists actually write for?

In the game known as journal publishing social scientists (economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc.) report on the research they and their colleagues have been engaged in. In pieces judged to be good by peers who do roughly similar research, they tell us their insights into how and why humans behave in a certain way in a particular area. A large amount of these journal articles find deficiencies in earlier works and expand on earlier work in some dimension. As a result, almost every week you’ll have a couple of thousands of research articles telling us of some ‘new’ insight that policy makers and fellow academics ‘should’ take into account.

There are now for instance more than 5000 known correlates of happiness, several hundred factors important for labour supply, several thousands of factors impacting on inflation, dozens of ‘irrationalities’ important for decision making in the laboratory, etc. Each of these correlates, factors, and irrationalities differ by population, age, and research methodology. The list of such ‘niceties’ is virtually endless and continues to expand at an incredible rate. Given that no human could read more than the tiniest trickle of these papers and incorporate more than a smidgen into their own work, most of these papers never get mentioned again and furthermore it would not be actually be possible for a policy maker to take much notice of the ‘findings’.

For whom then are we social scientists writing this stuff? The first possibility is that we don’t really write for anyone but ourselves, rather like a chess fanatic can write down the solution to a chess puzzle without being overly bothered who else reads it. If one can earn a job and a reputation by publishing some result, that’s an added bonus to what is essentially a self-absorbing exercise. This is pretty much the argument of Ariel Rubinstein in his 2001 European Economic Review paper and also corresponds to Einstein’s well-known saying that all we need to be happy in life is something to occupy our minds with. What is problematic about this explanation is that it fails to explain why we’re keeping up the pretense of being useful.

A second possibility is that we are in denial about the fact that it is not possible for our fellow academics or policy makers to take more than a trickle into account and thus nevertheless delude ourselves that we will be listened to by wide audiences (an imaginary anonymous horde of followers).

A third and perhaps more intriguing possibility is that social science is turning into a sacrificial religion in the sense that we are no longer writing for other humans, but we are writing for a supposed superhuman who can bring all the threads together. Economists call such a superhuman a ‘social planner’, but others often just refer to the supposed synthesizer as ‘the policy maker’. Since such a person must have mental qualities no human possesses, this in effect means we are now appealing to a god-like entity and our papers are like offerings to this entity (‘dear god, please take the following 5 millions facts into account when you make your next decision). If this third possibility were true, there should be some pointers one could look for.

A necessary characteristic of a deity is that any human attempting to do the job the deity is supposed to do (i.e. bring all the millions of threads of research together into one explanatory construct) is deemed an arrogant heretic. This prediction rings true but is rather weak evidence.

A fourth possibility is that we are really writing for no-one, i.e. neither ourselves nor anyone else, and that the current flood of niceties is just the outcome of individual researchers trying to make a living by finding more niceties within small sub-disciplines. This fourth explanation cannot stand alone though because it still needs something else to explain why it is that these individual researchers and the small sub-disciplines they work in feel obliged to pretend to write for a policy maker or for the advancement of social science in general rather than be honest and say ‘for no-one but it pays the bills’. Hence the proposed answers to the question of whom we are writing for are ‘our own vanity’, ‘our willful ignorance’ (which is also vanity of a sorts), ‘god’, or ‘no-one’.

One can argue that many social scientists realise all this and are unhappy with any of these answers but are stuck in a career path from which they cant escape and thus feel forced to continue down the path they unknowingly entered when younger (i.e. they realise too late what’s going on, by which time the game they’ve played is the only game they can play). That’s not really a satisfactory answer though because it doesn’t explain what lead to this situation.

1 comment to Who do social scientists actually write for?

  • Miklós Antal

    As the impact of social scientists can be described more or less with a scale-free distribution, some guys really make a difference (their ideas do change others’ thinking) while the rest remains insignificant. Many of us try to be opinion-leaders – at least at a local scale where chances are proportionately better (due to the SF distribution). Of course, most of us fail even at the lowest level. Many losers are probably stuck in their careers and potentially make harm to the society, while some others are just not recognized yet and still hope that a better future is awaiting them. Believing that one belongs to the latter group can perpetuate the plight.

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