Social science is broken. Can we fix it?

May 16 JDN 2459349

Social science is broken. I am of course not the first to say so. The Atlantic recently published an article outlining the sorry state of scientific publishing, and several years ago Slate Star Codex published a lengthy post (with somewhat harsher language than I generally use on this blog) showing how parapsychology, despite being obviously false, can still meet the standards that most social science is expected to meet. I myself discussed the replication crisis in social science on this very blog a few years back.

I was pessimistic then about the incentives of scientific publishing be fixed any time soon, and I am even more pessimistic now.

Back then I noted that journals are often run by for-profit corporations that care more about getting attention than getting the facts right, university administrations are incompetent and top-heavy, and publish-or-perish creates cutthroat competition without providing incentives for genuinely rigorous research. But these are widely known facts, even if so few in the scientific community seem willing to face up to them.

Now I am increasingly concerned that the reason we aren’t fixing this system is that the people with the most power to fix it don’t want to. (Indeed, as I have learned more about political economy I have come to believe this more and more about all the broken institutions in the world. American democracy has its deep flaws because politicians like it that way. China’s government is corrupt because that corruption is profitable for many of China’s leaders. Et cetera.)

I know economics best, so that is where I will focus; but most of what I’m saying here would also apply to other social sciences such as sociology and psychology as well. (Indeed it was psychology that published Daryl Bem.)

Rogoff and Reinhart’s 2010 article “Growth in a Time of Debt”, which was a weak correlation-based argument to begin with, was later revealed (by an intrepid grad student! His name is Thomas Herndon.) to be based upon deep, fundamental errors. Yet the article remains published, without any notice of retraction or correction, in the American Economic Review, probably the most prestigious journal in economics (and undeniably in the vaunted “Top Five”). And the paper itself was widely used by governments around the world to justify massive austerity policies—which backfired with catastrophic consequences.

Why wouldn’t the AER remove the article from their website? Or issue a retraction? Or at least add a note on the page explaining the errors? If their primary concern were scientific truth, they would have done something like this. Their failure to do so is a silence that speaks volumes, a hound that didn’t bark in the night.

It’s rational, if incredibly selfish, for Rogoff and Reinhart themselves to not want a retraction. It was one of their most widely-cited papers. But why wouldn’t AER’s editors want to retract a paper that had been so embarrassingly debunked?

And so I came to realize: These are all people who have succeeded in the current system. Their work is valued, respected, and supported by the system of scientific publishing as it stands. If we were to radically change that system, as we would necessarily have to do in order to re-align incentives toward scientific truth, they would stand to lose, because they would suddenly be competing against other people who are not as good at satisfying the magical 0.05, but are in fact at least as good—perhaps even better—actual scientists than they are.

I know how they would respond to this criticism: I’m someone who hasn’t succeeded in the current system, so I’m biased against it. This is true, to some extent. Indeed, I take it quite seriously, because while tenured professors stand to lose prestige, they can’t really lose their jobs even if there is a sudden flood of far superior research. So in directly economic terms, we would expect the bias against the current system among grad students, adjuncts, and assistant professors to be larger than the bias in favor of the current system among tenured professors and prestigious researchers.

Yet there are other motives aside from money: Norms and social status are among the most powerful motivations human beings have, and these biases are far stronger in favor of the current system—even among grad students and junior faculty. Grad school is many things, some good, some bad; but one of them is a ritual gauntlet that indoctrinates you into the belief that working in academia is the One True Path, without which your life is a failure. If your claim is that grad students are upset at the current system because we overestimate our own qualifications and are feeling sour grapes, you need to explain our prevalence of Impostor Syndrome. By and large, grad students don’t overestimate our abilities—we underestimate them. If we think we’re as good at this as you are, that probably means we’re better. Indeed I have little doubt that Thomas Herndon is a better economist than Kenneth Rogoff will ever be.

I have additional evidence that insider bias is important here: When Paul Romer—Nobel laureate—left academia he published an utterly scathing criticism of the state of academic macroeconomics. That is, once he had escaped the incentives toward insider bias, he turned against the entire field.

Romer pulls absolutely no punches: He literally compares the standard methods of DSGE models to “phlogiston” and “gremlins”. And the paper is worth reading, because it’s obviously entirely correct. He pulls no punches and every single one lands on target. It’s also a pretty fun read, at least if you have the background knowledge to appreciate the dry in-jokes. (Much like “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” I still laugh out loud every time I read the phrase “hegemonic Zermelo-Frankel axioms”, though I realize most people would be utterly nonplussed. For the unitiated, these are the Zermelo-Frankel axioms. Can’t you just see the colonialist imperialism in sentences like “\forall x \forall y (\forall z, z \in x \iff z \in y) \implies x = y”?)

In other words, the Upton Sinclair Principle seems to be applying here: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it.” The people with the most power to change the system of scientific publishing are journal editors and prestigious researchers, and they are the people for whom the current system is running quite swimmingly.

It’s not that good science can’t succeed in the current system—it often does. In fact, I’m willing to grant that it almost always does, eventually. When the evidence has mounted for long enough and the most adamant of the ancien regime finally retire or die, then, at last, the paradigm will shift. But this process takes literally decades longer than it should. In principle, a wrong theory can be invalidated by a single rigorous experiment. In practice, it generally takes about 30 years of experiments, most of which don’t get published, until the powers that be finally give in.

This delay has serious consequences. It means that many of the researchers working on the forefront of a new paradigm—precisely the people that the scientific community ought to be supporting most—will suffer from being unable to publish their work, get grant funding, or even get hired in the first place. It means that not only will good science take too long to win, but that much good science will never get done at all, because the people who wanted to do it couldn’t find the support they needed to do so. This means that the delay is in fact much longer than it appears: Because it took 30 years for one good idea to take hold, all the other good ideas that would have sprung from it in that time will be lost, at least until someone in the future comes up with them.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it: At the AEA conference a few years back, I went to a luncheon celebrating Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, whom I regard as one of the top 5 greatest economists of the 20th century (I’m thinking something like, “Keynes > Nash > Thaler > Ramsey > Schelling”). Yes, now he is being rightfully recognized for his seminal work; he won a Nobel, and he has an endowed chair at Chicago, and he got an AEA luncheon in his honor among many other accolades. But it was not always so. Someone speaking at the luncheon offhandedly remarked something like, “Did we think Richard would win a Nobel? Honestly most of us weren’t sure he’d get tenure.” Most of the room laughed; I had to resist the urge to scream. If Richard Thaler wasn’t certain to get tenure, then the entire system is broken. This would be like finding out that Erwin Schrodinger or Niels Bohr wasn’t sure he would get tenure in physics.

A. Gary Schilling, a renowned Wall Street economist (read: One Who Has Turned to the Dark Side), once remarked (the quote is often falsely attributed to Keynes): “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” In the same spirit, I would say this: the scientific community can remain wrong a lot longer than you and I can extend our graduate fellowships and tenure clocks.

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