The sciences need social sciences

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently completed a report to determine if funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research that included a social, behavioral and economic (SBE) component was worth the investment. In other words, do we need the social sciences to do good science research?

The National Academies of Sciences held a public forum and live webcast to announce their findings and promote their report, all of which can be found online (here).

The answer is an unqualified “yes.” We need the social sciences to do good science research, especially research funded by the NSF. As noted in the report, “the committee concludes that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences advance the missions of NSF and other federal agencies and serve well many of the most important needs of society. SBE research also can be applied to business and industry and has enhanced the U.S. economy.”

The committee made three main conclusions.

First: “Overall, the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce a better understanding of the human aspects of the natural world, contributing knowledge, methods, and tools that further the mission of the National Science Foundation to advance health, prosperity and welfare, national defense, and progress in science.”

Second: “The understanding, tools, and methods provided by the social, behavioral, and economic sciences—including research supported by the National Science Foundation—provide an essential foundation that helps other agencies achieve their missions.”

Third: “The social, behavioral, and economic sciences have provided advances in understanding and tools and methods that have been applicable to business and industry and that enhanced the U.S. economy.”

That’s good news for someone like me working in the social sciences. The challenge, of course, is getting other scientists to accept these findings.

The reality is that every major challenge we face on this planet has a human component to it and therefore requires a social science perspective. Global climate change is a case in point. Do we really think we will make any progress if scientists studying climate change are not consulting social scientists? Science can get us only so far if its pursuit of answers to problems either caused by or impacting humans does not also include insights from the social, behavioral or economic sciences. “Having a fundamental understanding of how people and societies behave, why they respond the way they do, what they find important, what they deeply believe or value, and what and how they think about others is critical in today’s shrinking global world,” as stated in the report.

I also like this statement: “Like all sciences, the SBE sciences bring a rigorous, methodical approach to pursuing knowledge—collecting data, formulating and testing hypotheses, analyzing evidence—that sheds light on the underlying nature of problems and can help point the way toward remedies.”

So, my colleagues in the sciences, do yourself a favor. Next time you write a grant proposal for research on an important scientific problem, invite a social scientist to be part of your team.

 

Another issue of Agriculture and Human Values is ready

The latest issue of the academic journal I edit, volume 34, issue 2, of Agriculture and Human Values, has just been published online (here).

A brief summary of the articles in this issue is as follows: Sippel et al assess the nature and impact of the financialization of farmland in Australia. Hill and Raster evaluate the rights of the Ojibwe people in Minnesota to control access to and use of wild rice fields in the face of appropriation by university researchers and others seeking to develop hybrid and genetically modified rice varieties. Mills et al examine factors affecting the willingness and ability of farmers to adopt environmental management practices. Clark et al report on perspectives of cooperative extension educators about food system change. Lyon et al assess the impact on women of their increasing participation rates in fair-trade coffee production in Oaxaca, Mexico. Roesch-McNally et al report on a survey of Midwest US farmers to determine factors affecting their intention to adapt farming practices in response to climate variability. Sumner et al study gender differences in the practice of conservation agriculture of smallholder farmers in Cambodia. Liu et al assess the community-building aspect of community supported agriculture in China and the UK. Orozco-Ramírezab and Astier study socio-economic factors expected to affect the genetic erosion of local maize varieties in Mexico. Bergstra et al assess the attitudes of different stakeholder groups in the Netherlands toward specific pig husbandry practices. Mars and Schau examine the role of entrepreneurship in facilitating local food system initiatives. Mason et al use a gendered mobilities framework to understand better how the movement of men and women in rural Tanzania affect their level of food security. Galt et al report on a survey of members of a community supported agriculture project in California to assess how member income affects participation and other considerations. Adolwa et al study how agricultural innovations are disseminated in two farming regions of Kenya and Ghana. Helliwell and Tomei assess the environmental stewardship implications of EU goernance policies on the biofuel industries in the UK and Guatemala. Sarmiento reviews and describes different strands of literature on alternative food networks.

Academic gobbledygook

Much has been written about the poor quality of academic writing. Examples include Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, explaining why academics stink at writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and author Victoria Clayton, describing the needless complexity of academic writing in an article in The Atlantic. Pinker points to literary analysis (e.g., when scholars “lose sight of whom they are writing for”), cognitive science (e.g., when scholars know too much and have “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know”) as well as economic incentives (e.g., because scholars have “few incentives for writing well”). According to Clayton, “Academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers.”

When are scholars going to get the message?

The following is the first sentence in the introduction of a paper submitted to Agriculture and Human Values: “This paper will explore how environmental documentaries through their use of direct address and creative aesthetics and imaginaries foreground a range of cautionary tales around the ethical importance of modes of food production, waste, and (over)consumption.” The paper concludes with this: “The toxic materiality of the eco-documentary … is a matter of a complex network of social and material effects, involving not only the immediate material of the DVD or film strip, but also the design and mass manufacture of technology, travel and transportation, land use and accessibility.”

I rejected the paper for publication. This is what I wanted to say to the author: “I am rejecting your paper because it is utterly incomprehensible. Too much of it is scholarly mumbo jumbo and academic goggledygook. I do not know what you are saying and don’t want to spend any more time trying to figure it out. Learn how to write clearly and simply before submitting a paper to my journal.”

Of course I was more diplomatic. My response began this way: “Critiques of the food system and assessments of ethical issues relating to food production fit within the aims and scope of this journal. However, I struggle to see the contribution of your paper to the kinds of debates we see published here and in similar outlets …”

Sigh.

Interestingly, dictionary.com gives this definition for goggledygook: “language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand.” Circumlocution? Really? Merriam-Webster’s is better: “wordy and generally unintelligible jargon.” Maybe Dictionary.com has too many academics working for them.

 

The boiling frog metaphor

We’ve all heard the story. You place a frog in a pot of boiling water and it jumps out to safety. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat and it cooks to death. It’s a great metaphor. If we are unaware of problems that develop slowly, we may never recognize there is something to be concerned about until it is too late.

Recently, a writer describing a contemporary musical number used the metaphor (here) to explain how “people wouldn’t realize they’ve been suckered into a musical until it was too late.”

However, the truth is that the story is not true. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog gets agitated and jumps out. In fact, it’s really hard to keep a frog still enough in a pot of water to test the theory. Some scientists did this in the 1800s producing mixed evidence for the boiling frog story. Today experts generally agree that the boiling frog story is hogwash, or perhaps better said, “frogwash”.

If you’re going to tell me “no”, then at least give me a reason

One of the responsibilities I have as editor of the academic journal Agriculture and Human Values is to invite scholars to evaluate papers submitted for publication. But soliciting reviewers is difficult. It takes time to identify potential reviewers and to extend the review invitation. In 2015, I made 900 invitations to scholars to review papers submitted to the journal. Two thirds of those who were invited agreed to review and most provided excellent reports, which helped me make the difficult decision of accepting or rejecting papers for publication. But one-third of invited reviewers declined to review. I use an online manuscript management system to send an email to reviewers asking them to accept or decline the review request. When an invited reviewer declines, the reviewer is asked to provide a reason. Almost half of those who declined gave no reason for their unwillingness or inability to review the paper.

This afternoon I sent a request to a scholar to review a paper for me. Within minutes the person decline but did not give me a reason. I get really annoyed when a scholar says “no” without giving me a reason. Give me a reason! I’ll take almost any excuse over nothing. For example, sometimes invited reviewers give trivial reasons, as in “I am too busy now.” I can accept that. That is better than offering no reason at all. Giving a reason shows respect. Not giving a reason is what masters do to servants, officers do to conscripted soldiers, and kings do to subjects.

In 1978, a Harvard University professor published the results of an interesting experiment in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the experiment, a person approached adults waiting in a line to make photocopies and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Not surprisingly, the request to cut in front of others waiting to use the same machine was frequently declined – in this case, 40% of the time. When a meaningful reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” the number of persons refusing the request to cut in line declined to only 6%; thus, most people let the person cut in line. Interestingly, when a trivial reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” the rate of refusal was almost identical to the case when a meaningful reason was given. This is interesting, because the reason given in the latter case was the same reason that others had for standing in the line. In other words, all that mattered for those waiting in line was that a reason be given for the request that created a burden for them – “even if the reason conveyed no information,” according to the study. Simply stated, people appreciate and will respond to a reason, even if it is a trivial one.

So, if you ask for my help, I’ll probably tell you “no”, but at least I’ll give you a reason.