Source: This image was created for netivist.org. If you want to use it you simply need to attribute it by linking to this page or to https://netivist.org. Thanks
Social science research helps us better understand society. However, failed predictions are also common. Why do social scientists get it wrong so often? Vote and
Social sicences, such as economics, sociology, anthropology and political science, have greately evolved over the last century and incorporated much of the rigour and techniques commonly applied in natural sciences. Researchers carefully analyse social phenomena using statistical tools and in-depth qualitative case studies. They draw from primary and secondary sources, study trends and establish comparisons. However, many great social events still happen unexpectedly. The end of the Cold War, the recent global financial crisis, and the Arab Spring are all examples of important social processes that social science research did not clearly predict. Self-criticism is common, professors such as Hayek, Krugman or Cox have pointed at several plausible explanations for these failed predictions and the pitfalls of social science reserach. Some of the problems are attributed to the nature of social phenomena, while others are intrinsic to the conduct of social research. We debate which factor is the most important in hindering predictions for future social, political and economic developments.
Challenges to social science research
The following are some of the commonly argued reasons for why social scientists get it wrong so often:
- Complex causality makes it difficult to predict great events or phenomena. Many factors (structural, agentic and ideational) interact and affect the way an event unfolds. It is very difficult for a social scientist to observe and study all the potential independent variables that can impact upon the object of study.
- Contingency and randomness are also problematic from the point of view of predictions. Natural disasters, "irrational" decisions and mistakes from leaders, accidents and rare coincidences have sometime shaped big events in ways very few could imagine.
- "Group think" is another problem affecting social science. Some theories and findings are very popular in academia and researchers fail to adopt a critical stance. Those who go against some of the reigning paradigms may be perceived as extravagant or unorthodox, and their research may not always be considered as serious. However these commonly accepted ideas may lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and erroneous predictions.
- Excessive specialisation and lack of incentives to look at the bigger questions is also believed to negatively affect accuracy of prediction. The way universities and journals are organized, by departments and disciplines, makes it more difficult for academics to engage in the often required multidisciplinary research. As academia is becoming increasingly specialised and focusing on increasingly smaller componets of social events and problems, there is a growing risk of blind spots and missing the "bigger picture".
- Vested interests may also affect the way social research is conducted. Some disciplines rely heavily on some ideas, assumptions or situations and therefore there is little incentive to question them. Moreover, governments, organizations and companies funding research may have their own agendas and put pressure on researchers to focus on some explanations and come up with certain findings.
- Other causes: there are several other potential (although less common) explanations for the failures in prediction in social sciences, such as the lack of methodological qualification and rigour, low research standards in some academic disciplines, inability to conduct experiments, the uniqueness of some events and cases, etc. Feel free to add other causes to the comment section below.
Which of these causes is the most important in explaining failure in prediction in social science research?
- Cox, Michael (2009) "Why did We Get the End of the Cold War Wrong?" The British Journal of Politics and International Relations (11) pp.161 – 176.
- Krugman, Paul. “Nobody Said That” in The New York Times, April 26, 2015.
- von Hayek, Friedrich August, “The Pretence of Knowledge”, Nobel Prize Lecture (1974).
Videos with Professors Gary King and Nicholas Christakis (Harvard University), and Jon Elster (Columbia University)
If you change your mind, you can change your vote simply by clicking on another option.
Challenges of prediction: Why do social scientists get it wrong so often?
New to netivist?
Join with confidence, netivist is completely advertisement free. You will not receive any promotional materials from third parties.