Are the Social Sciences “dead”? Or I can’t respect an academic who can’t build a parallel argument

This recent article in the NYT drives me crazy.  In it,  Nicholas Christakis questions the value of the current social sciences, claiming that they are moribund, and that is why they often lack respect.

One huge flaw in his analysis is the basic comparison.  Political science is held up to anatomy, not biology.  No one would argue that we don’t need to teach biology, even if molecular genetics now exists.

Another major problem is how Christakis presents different “future” fields of social science:

Some recent examples offer a glimpse of the potential. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse social sciences to the study of international issues and offers a new major. At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology, which increasingly relies on modern genetics, was hived off the anthropology department to make the department of human evolutionary biology.

These fields are not new nor are they the provience of the lofty Ivy leagues.  International studies are particularly common as a quick google will tell you; physical anthropology, meanwhile, has existed for cenutries.  Many other interdisplinary programs also exist – from gender or racial studies to UX or human computer interaction to human geography or proxemics.

The third big flaw is the fields he focuses on.  Evolutionary psychology sounds sexy, but is often criticized.  It’s hard to analyze physical anthropology without considering its relationship to eugenics.

 picture books "The human face of big data"

People don’t respect social science because it’s hard to see the value of it and to understand that there is more than the basics.  Science and business are lauded because it’s easy for someone to assign dollar amounts to it.  Culturally, we treat science as hard where the social sciences are seen as something we all intrinsically get.

This is a selling problem of social science, not a heuristic one.  We need to clearly show the value-add of, say, sociology as well as the difficulty of it.  Too often I read comments in an article on education where it’s clear that very few people know anything about sociology or psychology beyond a few pop social science books or main stream news.

We also need to demand more of our students.  Every crappy grad makes it that much harder to show the value of the social sciences. Too often social science departments end up with the responsibility of graduating the poorest students.  That’s one point where I do agree with Christakis, we should be having students “do” research starting from day one and actively challenging them.   That would entice those with an innate passion for social sciences while weeding out those who would like to just read Freakonomics and write a two-page book report on it.

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