Tag Archives: social science

The Quantitative Revolution

Revolutions break eggs to make omelets. Omelets are tasty. Broken eggs are messy. Hence, the essential problem of revolutions.

Of all the controversies I have learned about since entering the University of Nebraska, none has fascinated me so much as the Quantitative Revolution. The Quantitative Revolution, or QR, has radically transformed social research in academia. It is as much of a revolt against all that has gone before as Marxism. QR is a rejection of all that would interest a bright adolescent in social research. It is also, I think, all that can save social research from Marxism.

To understand this war, think about politics, or psychology, or geography, or any of those subjects that interested you when you read an Encyclopedia as a kid. Think of the Plato and Machiavelli pondering Politics, Freud and Adler plumbing the subconscious, and explorers and theorists deciding what is a Sea and what is a Bay. This is social research as it existed from antiquity to sometime in the 20th century.

Now throw that out. Instead measure things, and note what varies with what.

That’s the Quantitative Revolution. It’s very powerful, because it’s actually science: It provides a way of showing you when you are wrong, and a methodical way for supporting your intuition when it is right. Is man, for instance, truly a political animal? Well, measure where his nature comes from (neatly dividing it into biological influences, non-biological influences shared with one’s siblings, and non-biological influences not shared with one’s siblings) among a diverse enough population, regress it, and suddenly you get answers. More than that, you get repeatable answers which allow you move on to something else without throwing your old work away.

Yet QR is a profoundly dull revolution. All the great questions become matters for vertical thinkers and technicians. An academic career in the era of the QR essentially is the process of limiting your imagination to one or two good tools, and measuring variation with those tools. The sort of people who enjoy being accountants, I think, love life under the Quantitative Revolutionaries.

Yet the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and QR targets its wrath most consistently against the Marxists, dead-ender followers of a 19th century Revolution that have burrowed themselves deep into academia. Marxists have spent a century developing a self-consistent toolbox of rhetoric that has dispatched non-Marxists in nearly every academic field. Every place the Quantitative Revolution has not taken and held, it seems, is territory in which Marxists rapidly make their home.

I despise, I think, the Quantitative Revolution for depriving academia of the qualitative give-and-take that is so common in the better parts of the blogosphere. But I delight in the ease at which the Quantitative Revolution unseats the Marxists every time it gains a foothold, overwhelming the Marxist immune system through dull questions of covariation and how-do-you-know-if-you-are-wrong?

Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Genetics

Dr. Miller’s and Dr. Kanazawa’s Ten politically incorrect truths about human nature is everywhere these days. I discussed it over coffee with Daniel Nexon (of The Duck), Sean Meade (of Interact) emailed it to me, and it has appeared both on Thomas P.M. Barnett :: Weblog and South Dakota Politics. Like evolutionary psychology (of which this article is a manifestation), it is useful in that it helps smash the Standard Social Science Model, but incomplete in that it does not fully embrace social sciences.

The Standard Social Sciences Model (SSSM) is the overall research program of social sciences since World War II. It is most notable for ignoring biological factors, especailly at the group level, as causes of variation in human behavior. So ancient stone axes are described as “ceremonial” (the idea that weapons are for violence being seen as biological reductionism), and racial variations are not even mentioned as possible hypothesis when looking at racial gaps in intelligence or attention span. The SSSM essentially put half of all variables in taboo, hobbling social science to this day. The Evolutionary Psychologists, and the sociobiologists before them, have been tireless opponents of the SSSM, opening the door to real social scientific research for the first time in generations.

However, the exclusion of biological factors from social sciences for half a century did its work in limiting the utility of early biological explanations. The central tools of social science, regression and correlation in explaining variation, are underused by EP and SB because they were relatively new to social science at the time of the taboo began. More scientific approaches to biological factors have now appeared, and these generally go by the name of behavioral genetics. The Evolutionary Psychologists and Biopsychologists ultimately did not prevail, but took the damage that allowed more scientific approachesto flurish.

So back to the original article, Ten politically incorrect truths about human nature. Twenty years ago the authors would have been hounded out of academia, because they dare believe that biology influences behavior. Nowadays there specific claims are dismissed, because of weak operationalize and overbroad generalities.

That’s progress. That’s science. That’s the search for knowledge.

There is now real debate. Men like Edward O. Wilson and John Tooby are to thank for that.

Good.

Some links: The twin blogs, Gene Expression and gnxp, are amazing sources for the latest in behavioral genetics. I first learned of the EvolPsych/behavgen split from Steven Pinker. And at Dreaming 5GW, I examined two cases where dangerously presented half-truths are worse than no truth at all.

Update: Per a request from Sean, my uninformed impressions of the specific claims are below the fold:


Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)

Men should be expected to be attracted, and women should be expected to try to emulate, any hard-to-fake sign of reproductive fitness. As skin color and intelligence are generally correlated with moderate climates, this would imply that the idela female type should be skewed towards signs of moderate climate. (In all populations, women’s skin tends to be lighter than men’s, for perhaps this reason). Blond hair is a particularly European mutation, however, so this specific claim seems unlikely as a human universal.

Humans are naturally polygamous.

Better to say men historically have higher variance in the number of reproductive partners they have than women. The last universal male ancestor was much closer to our time than the last universal female ancestor for just this reason.

Most women benefit form polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy

Indeed. Monogamous societies are male guilds, where competition for females is limited for the bettermen of the average men. In the same way, the professions with the greatest “merit pay” relative to standard wage (academia, hollywood, professional sports) are worst for average workers but best for the best performing. See The Right Nation for more on this.

Most suicide bombers are Muslim

This is an objective fact, so within the claim itself there is no debate.

My own research indicates that genetic variation might have more to do with the particularly Arab (or perhaps more accurately, Semite) form of terrorism we see today. But I don’t know. This is a really open question, and there is a lot of money to be made in implementing an answer.

Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce.

The claim and explanation both sound reasonable. No argument.

Beautiful people have more daughters.

Something similar is true of deer populations: daughters of highly reproductive males tend to be under-reproductive themselves. My guess is that beauty is an adaption that is particularly useful for females, and so it should skew toward females.

What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals.

They have something else in common two: risk taking behavior and focus on abstract concepts. Many of the differences between males and females may come from two tendencies which emerge almost at birth: the male preference for systems and risk over people and stability.

The midlife crisis is a myth — sort of

Sounds reasonable. The authors present a specific test of their hypothesis, so it’s up to someone to tst it.

It’s natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they’re male)

Solid discussion of inclusive fitness v. individual fitness.

Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

Many behaviors are sex- (or at least gender-) dependent, and misapplication of these behaviors violates social norms. (Try to punch a mouthy woman or embrace a male aquaintence to see this for yourselves). The authors extend this logic to “harrassment.” Still, it goes without saying that many “harrasing” behaviors would be non-normative in a same-sex environment.