On Warranting Equal Scientific Standing

A recent commentary in USA Today discusses the frustration felt by some folks in the social and behavioral sciences that their disciplines are not treated as though they were as scientifically rigorous as the hard sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry). The author points out two issues that drive the debate: money and politics. First, the money given to one study is funding taken away from another study. So there is a vested interest in limiting who is a viable candidate for limited funds.

Second, research can be political, and academics in the softer sciences are decidedly left of center:

A recent survey by economics professor Daniel Klein revealed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a whopping 30-to-1 ratio in anthropology; 28-to-1 in sociology; nearly 10-to-1 in history; and nearly 7-to-1 in political science. In economics, which is widely considered “conservative” by other social fields, Republicans are merely outnumbered 3-to-1.

These ratios should get your attention.

A similar discussion takes place in several chapters in the book, Psychology’s War on Religion, edited by three folks, one of whom is Nicholas Cummings, past president of the American Psychological Association. I contributed the chapter on the battle over sexuality, which is on the front lines of the question of bias. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But first let’s discuss philosophy of science.

Several scholars have pointed out that research is value-laden – this is fairly well-established in the philosophy of science literature for the past fifty years or so. From the selection of the topic to the choice and operationalization of variables to the interpretation of data – make no mistake, science is value-laden. It is just clearer to see in the behavioral and social sciences. But that science if value-laden is true across the sciences. Perhaps the potential misuse of science is of greater concern in the behavioral and social sciences in light of the tendency to skew left of center which could keep researchers from holding one another accountable.  “Group think” about entire lines of research (let alone specific findings) can become a problem that translates into policy recommendations under the weight and auspices of “What science says…”

My experience has been that when other perspectives are brought up that go against the prevailing view (what is quickly defended as the “scientific consensus”), that other perspective (the counter-narrative, if you will) is ridiculed outright or simply left die a slow death by exclusion (from the broader “scientific” discourse).

There are plenty of examples to illustrate this point, and I offer several of them in the chapter I referenced above (in the book, Psychology’s War on Religion). One such area is the question: Can sexual orientation change? The answer “Yes” has become acceptable if it means through natural fluidity (among females) as reported by Lisa Diamond in her longitudinal work. If similar data (with more rigorous methodology) suggests “Yes” through involvement in Christian ministries, that line of research is dismissed outright as an outrageous consideration that does not even warrant discussion. It was interesting at the time of the original publication that the initial criticisms centered on who authored it, our institutional affiliations, and that it was published in book form (never mind that several studies have been published in book form and none of the early criticisms were scientific criticisms as such). Now that the study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal (in 2011, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy), it is now facing that counter-narrative of exclusion (i.e., let’s ignore it) I mentioned earlier.

Of course, one study does not prove that change occurs, and we have offered several possible explanations for the findings in an attempt to be fair that multiple interpretations of the data are viable. But the findings themselves open a line of research that could warrant further investigation. I recognize that the question of change is not of interest to the mainstream GLB community, and that it is actually a threatening consideration, but the mainstream GLB community are not the only stakeholders in these discussions, and others are (and have been) asking what the can expect from involvement in Christian ministries. Rather than rely upon competing anecdotal accounts, empirical study can shed light on a question of personal relevance to conventionally religious people. (Now such purported “scientific consensus” is being used to advance legislation about clinical practice. The behavioral and social science community that recognizes that such a bill overreaches beyond the science stands silent or “neutral” on the matter.)

So, to return to the question of whether the behavioral and social sciences warrant equal scientific standing: I am unlikely to shed a tear for my colleagues who lament that the behavioral and social sciences are not seen as equal to the hard sciences. As a psychologist, part of me would like to see behavioral science findings valued, and in many (if not most) cases, this would not be an issue. But I see first-hand how the field functions within political space that warrants the criticisms we have received.

When we get our house in order, we will be able to have a legitimate complaint. Until then, the devaluing of the behavioral and social sciences can function as a corrective if we are open to constructive criticism.