Reading Social Science Lit: Examples of Unexamined Assumptions

I recently created a starter’s guide for reading through social science literature/reporting and how to understand the validity of what you’re being told.

Here is an example.

I recently read a piece on Vox, which invades my Twitter feed once every few hours with its Mighty Ducks-style, bright yellow “Flying V” logo.

Also found here.

Let’s go through our list and see what’s wrong with this picture.

Vox started out as a vision of informing the low-information voter. Lately its been devolving into partisan commentary where someone with a look of wonky intellectualism sprinkles the internet with a few snippets of truth and leaves out all the caveats. The source is the first thing we should notice about the story. I can get past the partisanship of politics since that is the name of the game in this town.

What I can’t overlook is the selective broadcasting of information without synthesizing its contents first.

For example, this paper does not empirically lend any evidence to a causal connection between mistreatment and deviant behavior. The authors of the paper may leave it open as a possibility, but they are explicit in the abstract that this is a “correlational study.”

Yet Jenee Desmond-Harris says from the very beginning in her own subtitle “This may make people socially deviant,” as if the research itself bears this point out.

The kicker:

“The Stanford study’s findings about antisocial behavior as a consequence of disrespect are new — but it makes perfect sense that being undervalued because of identity would affect every part of a person’s life.”

But does it make perfect sense?

Here are some issues to ponder:

These are self-reported responses to hypotheticals. The assumptions here are that people know how they would react in a real-life situation as opposed to an imagined one and that what they say they would feel would actually translate into actions. We have good reason to doubt one if not both of those. In fact, humans are rather bad at predicting how they will feel, even in a concrete future.

In the abstract, the authors say “The effect was driven by the tendency to construe social identity threats not as isolated incidents but as symbolic of the continuing devaluation and disrespectful treatment of one’s group.” In other words, the perceived anti-social connection is driven by people’s projection of their current attitudes onto the imagined mistreatment.

If one holds a perception of persistent victimization (whether or not there actually is), they may be far more likely to already have anti-social attitudes in perceiving the worst in others and be more likely to interpret any level of supposed mistreatment as a continuing devaluation.

Such pre-existing attitudes could be driving any percentage of the correlation between anti-social attitudes and social identity (anywhere from .00001% to 100%). But you would never know that from the article. It may be that if we educate people by exposure to certain media, stereotypes, culture, or actual mistreatment to interpret others’ actions in a particular way (perhaps in a way that is hyper-sensitive), that miseducation can be the root cause of anti-social attitudes.

I was bullied at some points in my childhood. Years later, I was hyper-sensitive to boys who would be the same age as those who bullied me and would interpret even innocuous communication as threatening, which engendered shyness, a lack of confidence, and often anti-social or even angry responses. But I wasn’t actually being mistreated. I just had been miseducated. There was a causal effect in one time period and a correlation in a later period. If I were in this study, the Vox article would have lumped those two together.

At a point later in life, I encountered a lot of religious bigotry (still do). Such mistreatment made me quite reticent to discuss my faith. But that reticence continued into my adult life when people would just want to have a basic discussion of what I believed. Media exposure of others’ ignorance as well as popular pitying of what I believe (e.g. “Book of Mormon”, the musical) exacerbated that perception. My miseducation is what allowed the reticence to pervade. It was all about MY attitude, not others’.

Then there is the policy implication of this research. If personal attitudes and education are primary drivers of the perceptions of mistreatment and of subsequent anti-social behavior, there is room for help at the family, friend, and neighborhood level, as well as a cultural shift in what we prefer to consume in media. Personal attitudes of empowerment are typically out of the reach of the state, and the question of whether they should be in the reach of the state is an iffy one. If others’ actions are the primary driver of this anti-social behavior, then governments have a larger role to play in a policy realm.

There is evidence out there that being demeaned and mistreated for long enough can do serious harm to our social outcomes. But reporting like this muddies the waters and may not even capture the salient points the authors were trying to make. And those authors, despite being connected to one of the most respected institutions in the world, may not have a complete picture in mind.

This is why we need to be critical.


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