July 01, 2003

Magic by Numbers

Every once in a while, PS, the trade publication of academic political science, publishes a long winded article bemoaning the irrelevance of political science to the real world. Nobody much listens to political scientists; even (especially) politicians. These articles always finish by telling us that we should make our work more policy relevant. Fair enough point, but relevance has its downside.

Both Kevin Drum and Mark Kleiman have blogged recently about the abuse of social science by groups with an axe to grind. Drum tells us about efforts by the fathers’ rights movements to “prove” that it’s bad for kids when divorced mothers with custody move out of town. Kleiman rips apart claims that a born-again Christian fellowship leads to lower rates of recidivism among ex-prisoners.

This is a serious problem for the social sciences, and especially for policy studies. There’s a lot of debate about conflict of interest in medical science (the Consumer Project on Technology has a great resources page on this). But very little general attention is devoted to the ways in which policy research can be used or abused for political ends. Elizabeth Warren has a very interesting paper about research and bankruptcy law. She talks about research on the economic consequences of bankruptcy which was funded by the credit industry, and which purports to be neutral and scientific, but is (in Warren’s eyes) nothing more than a thinly disguised brief for industry’s position. Warren suggests that this work was never intended as real academic research, but rather to influence debates within Congress. One major study that she talks about was never properly published in academic form - but was sent to the office of every member of Congress to try and persuade them to weaken bankruptcy protections. Warren has her own position in this debate, which she seeks to defend with gusto, but she raises some very troubling issues.

The root of the problem is an academy in which universities increasingly rely on outside funding from the well-heeled, including industry groups in order to grow. Sometimes (although, to be fair, not always) this support comes with a more or less explicit price-tag. And in a climate where there’s ever less research money available for social scientists, it’s easy to give into temptation. Fortunately for me perhaps, my own academic work is only indirectly relevant to policy, and hence unlikely to be interesting to industry groups. I don’t have much occasion to succumb to temptation, at least not of this specific variety. Irrelevance has its advantages.

Posted by Henry at July 1, 2003 06:59 PM | TrackBack

Kevin Drum refers to an Alas, A Blog post about one of my posts about the Sanford Braver move-away study. The timing of its publication seems suspect in that the California Supreme Court is due to decide on a move-away case soon. The study did not find that mothers’ moving with children harmed the children. However, it did find problems with father custody and father move-aways. Rather than discuss those findings, the researchers lumped all of those move-aways together in their press release. So, the press reports that move-aways are harmful without noting that it was the results involving fathers that brought the averages down.

Divorce researcher Dr. Judith Wallerstein analyzed the move-away data in depth. The study left much to be desired.


Alas, A Blog on the Braver Study:

Trish Wilson on Braver Study:

Dr. Wallerstein on Braver Study:

Posted by: Trish Wilson at July 2, 2003 08:38 AM
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