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Is Social Science The God That Failed?


ANNOUNCER: Think Tank is made possible by AMGEN, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. AMGEN, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology. Improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theLilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the UnitedStates-Japan Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. For more than acentury, an academic discipline, or an alleged academic discipline,social science, has grown in importance. In the late 1940s, professorAlfred Kinsey's study, Sexual Behavior In the Human Male changed theway Americans thought about sex. But, today his social scienceresearch, his ideology, and his personal life are falling underintense scrutiny.

In a controversial biography, author James Jones writes, Kinsey'smethodology and sampling technique virtually guaranteed that he wouldfind what he was looking for. He loathed Victorian morality. Kinseyis not the first prominent social scientist whose research has led toan examination about how personal experience or politics can colorallegedly scientific inquiry. The question has been asked, is socialscience science? To sort through these issues we are joined by two ofAmerica's preeminent social scientists, who have at time questionedthe practices of their own discipline.

First, Seymour Martin Lipset, former president of the AmericanPolitical Science Association, former president of the AmericanSociological Association, and author of American Exceptionalism.

Later we will converse with James Q. Wilson, formerly of Harvardand UCLA, and also a former president of the American PoliticalScience Association. He is the author of, The Moral Sense.

The topic before this house, is social science the god thatfailed, this week on Think Tank.

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MR. WATTENBERG: Let us begin at the beginning. How is humanknowledge organized within the academy?

MR. LIPSET: Well, the academy organizes human knowledge, I guess,in the three broad categories, we didn't want to call it the liberalarts. Namely the natural sciences, the social sciences and thehumanities. There are of course subdivisions within them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Would the natural sciences be part of the liberalarts?

MR. LIPSET: Yes, the way universities are organized -- you see,the liberal arts are in distinction now to the professional schools.So that they are the more pure -- they're interested in theory forknowledge for knowledge sake.

MR. WATTENBERG: So if someone is studying physics it is --

MR. LIPSET: That's one of the liberal arts. But, if he's studying,you know, electrical engineering, which is a very theoretical piece,then he's a professional.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. These days what is the opinion of thenatural sciences?

MR. LIPSET: Well, I think the natural sciences today, as in thepast, are in better repute with the public and within the universitycommunity than the other fields. You know, they're thought of -- itsounds -- it's redundant, scientific, that is they really -- they doexperimental work, they do statistics, mathematical statistical work.We see some of the things that derive from them.

MR. WATTENBERG: We live longer lives because of natural sciences?

MR. LIPSET: The assumption is that they know what they're doing orthey make discoveries. At the other end you have the humanities,philosophy, literature, languages, and so on, which are -- whichpeople would feel, okay, they're interesting, the people are verybright, or intelligent, they're interpretations of human behavior,but they're not fact. That is, the humanities are not -- unlessthey're historians, are not trying to do something which isabsolutely true.

And now the social sciences are sort of in the middle in thisrespect. Some of them are more like the sciences, try to havemathematical models, experiments, quantitative data, others are moreinterpretive. So that you have interpretive sociology, so to speak.And the phrase is used as against quantitative or scientificsociology.

MR. WATTENBERG: You once told me, at least as I recall it, yousaid that social science is the god that failed. What did you mean,if you said it, and if you didn't say it, what would somebody whosaid it mean, if they said it?

MR. LIPSET: Well, whether I said it or not, I think I would agreewith it. Though the phrase, as you know, was originally made -- wasmeant to talk about Communism, the god that failed. What one wouldmean, or I would have meant, about the social sciences is there was aperiod, particularly after World War II, when I was a graduatestudent, where a lot of the people in social sciences, graduatestudents, the most important people, thought that they really wereengaged in creating a science, in the sense in which the naturalsciences think of themselves. And that the knowledge that they woulddevelop by basis of highly sophisticated methods and theory wouldenable us to really know, understand, human behavior, socialstructure, organization, societies. And then derivative from it,though that's really not the science itself, we'd really be able todo something.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's go through a roster of some of the great andfamous social scientists in this last century or so. Who would be, inyour judgment, at sort of the top of the pantheon, who really didimportant work?

MR. LIPSET: Well, one of them is Max Weber, who, as you know, wasa -- and I was thinking of him as we talked, because Max Weber oncesaid a very interesting thing, which is he said, and he used thisword, he said every scholar has a party line. He used in German theword, 'party line'. And he has, therefore, an interest in furtheringhis party line. So that when he does research, wittingly orunwittingly, and mostly unwittingly, he accepts evidence which is infavor of what he would like to find and ignores or doesn't notice thecontradictory evidence.

MR. WATTENBERG: Did he said every scientist or every socialscientist?

MR. LIPSET: I don't remember whether he said every scholar or -- Ithink he talked about scholars, because the Germans use the termwissenschaft for the social sciences and the sciences. But, atany rate it applies to natural sciences, too. But, and therefore,said the paper, if you do research and what you find jibes, coincideswith what you would like to find, don't trust it, do it over, asksomebody else to check it out for you. If it contradicts what youwant to find, then it's probably true. So publish what contradictswhat you want, but don't publish, unless you do a lot more checking,things which contradict you.

MR. WATTENBERG: One prominent social scientist who has been underexamination for such nonscientific behavior is the culturalanthropologist Margaret Mead. Her famous study, Coming of Age inSamoa, published in 1928, supposedly demonstrated something stillvery much under discussion today, that gender differences were notinherent, but socially constructive. Men and women, Mead tried toshow, were really not so different. She had been hailed as one of thegreat researchers of her time, but her image has tarnished.

James Q. Wilson.

MR. WILSON: the messages that social science give that getimmediate public resonance are the messages that they produce thatthe dominant forum of the political and culture elite wants to hear.When Margaret Mead said that sex is free in Samoa, that boys andgirls grow up with early romantic entanglements, that all sexualdifference is learned -- views which, by the way, she laterrepudiated in some respects -- that's the message we wanted to hearat a time when the elite, cultural elite, was trying to destroy theidea that biology had anything at all to do with human behavior. Shesaid, in effect, it had nothing to do with human behavior. We nowknow she is absolutely wrong. She didn't spend enough time in Samoa.She didn't speak enough Samoan. She was led on by girls who put upthese stories to her as a way of teasing a visitor. Derek Freemanfrom Australia has shown this systematically.

If Margaret Mead thought that boys and girls were created equal,were entirely molded by society, that free love without marriage wasthe wave of the future, she could have gone there without mycriticism, and explored in Samoa that view. But that would mean shewould have to systematically interview lots of Samoans. She'd have toknow the Samoan language very well. She'd have to test the testimonyof two or three girls who had told her one story to see if it wasreally true. She didn't do any of those things.


MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think she did not do any of those thingspurposefully because she had what she wanted to prove her case andsaid, I'm just going to --


MR. WILSON: I think it is very tempting for all social scientiststo be in Margaret Mead's position and to find a little evidence thatsupports your view and to write it up prematurely. And it wasn't justMargaret Mead, lots of people, probably myself included, have donethis on occasion.

MR. WATTENBERG: Not you, Professor Wilson.

MR. WILSON: I'm sure it's true. But that's the reason why studiesof this sort should --

MR. WATTENBERG: I never do it in my writing, ever, right?


MR. WILSON: That's the reason why studies of this sort should onlybe accepted after several independent scholars have looked at thesame data and come to comparable conclusions.

MR. WATTENBERG: Another controversial social scientist was AlfredKinsey. His ground-breaking study of sexual behavior caused asensation, when published soon after World War II. Americans werefascinated by his shocking statistics, 37 percent of men, hereported, had a homosexual experience to orgasm; 25 percent of women,he said, were unfaithful to their husbands by age 40; and 10 percentof men, Kinsey said, were practicing homosexuals. The last item that1 in 10 men is gay is one of Kinsey's many findings that was, atfirst, commonly accepted, and is now questioned.

In the eye-opening book, Alfred Kinsey, A Public PrivateLife, author James Jones, makes several provocative claims aboutboth the life and work of America's most famous sex researcher. Inthe words of biographer Jones, in his eagerness to combat prudery andcelebrate Eros, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain moralboundaries. And sex research allowed Kinsey to transform hisvoyeurism into science. In an article about Jones' book on Kinsey, inCommentary Magazine, Joseph Epstein adds, Alfred Kinsey was amoral revolutionary in scientist's clothing. The science was bad,even bogus.

Now, another bedrock that so many of us studied in our, at least,undergraduate years was Professor Alfred Kinsey.

MR. WILSON: Dr. Kinsey and his colleagues wanted to treat sex asan open topic of conversation, and they wanted to explore the sexualhabits of people. Now, many people don't discuss their sexual habitsunambiguously with outsiders. To get a sample that would discuss themunambiguously, they recruited as their sample members a lot ofprostitutes, street people, and the like, and interviewed them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Prisoners.

MR. WILSON: And prisoners, and used them as their subjects. Andthen began making statements about, for example, how commonhomosexuality is. It turned out they overestimated it by a factor offour. Or how common various sexual practices which on this program Iwill not describe were common, and probably exaggerated thosedramatically. But the cultural elite wanted to hear that message,they wanted to be emancipated from their sexual hang-ups. They wantedto feel good about themselves. And Dr. Kinsey became a famous person.It was largely wrong.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, we have Margaret Mead, we have Alfred Kinsey.These two people would be swinging from the left side of the plate,generally speaking. Are there examples that you could give us on theother side of the plate, and is there more abuse on side or theother?

MR. WILSON: Well, I'll give you an example of a conservative useof social science. Although it was better quality social science thanMs. Mead or Dr. Kinsey, it still left itself open to questions. Ascholar published a study, in fact wrote a study in draft, thathadn't even been published yet, that purported to show that theprospect of capital punishment would reduce the homicide the rate.And that unpublished study went to the United States Supreme Courtthrough various back channels. And it was an effort to persuadepeople that capital punishment was a good idea because it wouldreduce the murder rate. That was a sophisticated, high-capacity,multiple regression equation. But there were a lot of problems in it,problems that have since been pointed out by other scholars whoworked with the same data.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who was the scholar who did that?

MR. WILSON: This was Dr. Isaac Ehrlich. I cannot say that he wascategorically wrong, but I'm reasonably confident from looking at theanalyses that have been done since he published, that he was almostsurely not categorically right. I can explain the technical problemsin the equations if you want, but he drew large inferences from datathat showed very uneven swings in the rate of capital punishment inthe country. And if you tried to hold constant the period of time youwere looking at, you would get very different results.

But that galvanized conservatives who said, capital punishmentworks. Now, personally, I don't know whether it works or not. Ihappen to think that it probably doesn't deter many murderers at all.Although I am not an opponent of --

MR. WATTENBERG: But, you're wrong, because it does. No, go ahead.My view is, it does. But that's all right.

MR. WILSON: It may. All I'm saying is that social scientists can'tfind out whether it does because the prospect of being executed inthis country is so rare, and the murder rate is so high, that if youput those two numbers, the small number of executions and the verylarge number of homicides together, the effect of capital punishment,if it exists, and it may exist, will be lost out here in the errorterm. It will simply be unmeasured in the noise of the equation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Has social science advanced the discipline ofcriminology? Are we better at it? Can we deal with it better becauseof the tools of social science? Or has that, too, become sopoliticized that maybe it's not worth it?

MR. WILSON: I think good social science has powerfully advancedcriminology. Let me give you a defense of Dr. Isaac Ehrlich. Hisstudy of the capital punishment, I thought, was open to question. Buthis general argument that the prospect of deterrence affects humanbehavior was not open to such obvious arguments.

And there have now been dozens of studies that attempt to measurethe relationship between the probability of going to prison on theone hand, and the rate at which a certain kind of crime is committedon the other, holding constant all of the other variables, such asincome, and unemployment, and urbanization, and the like. And theweight of that evidence, and there have now been several dozenstudies, is broadly quite consistent with the deterrent hypothesis.

And although still questions can be asked and have been asked, Ithink this has moved the criminology profession a little bit in thedirection of saying, well, we used to love rehabilitation. We hatedthe idea that deterrence might work, but the weight of the evidenceis now getting very strong that deterrence, in fact, makes adifference.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is that why the crime rate is going down now, doyou think?

MR. WILSON: I think that's one of the reasons the crime rate isgoing down in this country, and going up in England and Sweden. Wepractice deterrence, they don't.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jim Wilson, your sometime colleague, SeymourMartin Lipset once mentioned to me, he said, 'social science is thegod that failed.' Let's start out at the beginning, what was the god?

MR. WILSON: Well, the god may have been in Marty's mind anexaggerated idea of what social science could accomplish. In thedecades, the 1890s, the 1900s, when social science societies werebeing formed, when social science was getting its first huge jumpstart in this country, there were people -- I call them reformists,they were mostly capital P Progressives -- who believed that socialscience could provide the route to a good life. The economicsprofession would teach us how to interfere in the market to makepeople better off, and the political science profession wouldinterfere in the political system to remove corruption andinefficiency. These reformist motives may have been, and I thinkwere, in fact, an exaggerated god, and that god, in fact, did fail,because we do not derive from social science reliable guidelines asto how to improve society.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, has the discipline of social science beenabused by those that you call reformists? Have they taken this tool,which people tend automatically to believe in -- they say, oh, therewas a survey that showed such and such, a recent study revealed thatsuch and such, and you know that rap about as well as anybody, Jim --has that been abused by activists so they can come in with theirattaché case and wave it around and say, see, I've got theproof here. Therefore, endorse my ten point program?

MR. WILSON: I think the political activists from both the left andthe right do that. And I think some social scientists make themselveseasily available to have that done on their behalf, and some studiesare written with that purpose in mind. That's bad social science.It's like bad journalism. When you see it, you shouldn't like it. Thedifficulty is that when somebody says, a survey just showed, youimagine that some person in a white gown, having calculated carefullythe probability sample, has analyzed all the people, excluded all theirrelevant variables, and come up with some conclusion. And what youreally realize when you look at the survey is that it's a half-bakedsurvey asking leading questions to an unrepresentative sample, andpretending that the people answering the question knew what they weretalking about. It's very easy to exaggerate the claims of socialscience.

But if you look at the best social science, which are studies thatare meticulously done, and then other people repeat similar studieson similar matters, you get interesting results. James Colemanstudied the relationship between what we spend on schools and what weget out of schools in terms of educational achievement is a wonderfulexample. It was a huge study, hundreds of thousands of children wereinvolved. It was a comprehensive study, all of the extraneous and yetmeasurable variables were taken into account. It came up with theargument that how much money we spend on schools didn't make muchdifference. It was so controversial that other people then didsimilar studies, and have by and large confirmed the central finding.Now, I don't think we could have got to that conclusion by readingjournalistic accounts of what's wrong with schools.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah. But 30 years after James Coleman made thosefindings, roughly 30 years, you will still have social scientistsinvolved in studies and in testimony on Capitol Hill saying, the wayto cure our schools is through more money, and they will implicitlybe denying the results that James Coleman came to.

MR. WILSON: You may have these social scientists, you'll have evenmore of the National Education Association, which has never acceptedthe overwhelming weight of social science evidence on this subject.I'm quite aware of that, and this is one of the reasons why I think--

MR. WATTENBERG: I know you are, that's why you're here.

MR. WILSON: -- that social science can't be a reformistenterprise.

MR. WATTENBERG: We began this program with something that MartyLipset had said that social science was the god that failed. He alsosaid that the -- what we, meaning social scientists, because he's asociologist and a political scientist, what we are learning again andagain is that the mother science is history. Do you buy that?

MR. WILSON: No, I don't. History is not a science. History is anarration that describes from the writer's point of view whathappened. Now, there are good historians. That is to say, there arepeople who will ransack original records. They will consider all ofthe original records. They will draw cautious conclusions about whodid what to whom and why, and there are sloppy historians. Onlyrarely is there an historian who is a social scientist, and that isbecause of the nature of the discipline. It's not their personalfailings.

You would want to know why a war started. A historian tries toanswer that question by looking at the documentary evidence left bypeople who happen to write documents, but they don't look at theevidence of people who didn't happen to write documents. A socialscientist would say, we can't answer this question without knowing awhole lot of things about people who didn't write documents.

MR. WATTENBERG: If you go down the street and somebody says, theregoes James Q. Wilson, the social scientist. Is that something you areproud of?

MR. WILSON: Very proud of. I'm not always a good social scientist.Some people have pointed this out to me, particularly policeofficers, by calling me a sociologist, which is one of their ways ofsaying, you're a low-lying creep. But I think as a social scientist Itry hard to do a good job. I don't always succeed. But I think theeffort to look at evidence systematically and to try to ask wheredoes the evidence lead, regardless of how you feel about the outcome,is a very worthwhile endeavor. And if I've made any contribution, andthat's for others to decide, then to that extent, I'm proud to becalled a social scientist.

MR. WATTENBERG: And notwithstanding the abuses, many people aredoing that?

MR. WILSON: I believe so. I find them all the time in thelibraries and the computer labs, working very hard, usually on rathernarrow subjects, but trying to manipulate the data, producingarticles in journals that no one ever reads, not leading to anypolicy implications. This happens all of the time. In fact, too muchof it happens, I wish they'd get their eyes on larger subjects, but Ican't talk them into it.

MR. WATTENBERG: And it adds to the sum of human knowledge?

MR. WILSON: I'm not sure whether it adds to the sum of humanknowledge, frankly. I think it adds to their prospects for promotionand getting a research grant. But some of it, some of it, done bypeople who keep their eye on large questions that really do interestthe public so that the public will want to read the results, and notjust two other economists, that does slowly improve the quality ofpublic debate.

Public debate in this country is better about education and aboutcrime and about welfare than it was 20 years ago. And I think in manyways, social scientists have contributed to that improvement.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you very much.

MR. WILSON: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: And thank you. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our showbetter. Please send your questions and comments to: New River Media,1150 Seventeenth Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036; or e-mailus at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank visit PBSOn-line at www.pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch ThinkTank.


(Musical break.)


This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in associationwith New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.


Think Tank is made possible by AMGEN, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. AMGEN, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology. Improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theLilly Endowment and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the UnitedStates-Japan Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation.


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