doctorimpostor:

““Like others of my generation, for me a Ph.D. in the social sciences meant that results were only meaningful if full of numbers, chi squares, and cluster diagrams that had a statistical significance of .05. Although there was something very seductive about artfully uncovering elegant patterns in this matter, the relative trust in a scientific method and distrust of the ‘art’ of studying human behaviour never sat well with me. I watched my scientist housemate start an experiment by getting rid of the “noise.” Yet I found that the noise, the outliers that blew away my 0.05 level of confidence, was where some of the most interesting information lay. I felt an almost tangible beauty in the patterns, especially ones that outliers helped foreground; surely they were part of the story””

— Ellen Pader (p. 161) in Dvora Yannow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, eds. “Interpretation and Method: Emperical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn.” Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. 

It seems to me that, rather than trying to answer questions when you don’t have the necessary data to do it, perhaps you should ask different questions. Certainly, we all do the best with the data we can get, but it is never alright to draw conclusions that your data don’t support—and Regenerus’ data simply cannot answer the question he set out to ask. And when your research questions the legitimacy of people’s families—my family—I demand higher research standards.

In Sociology Lens, an insightful blogger known only as Amanda critiques the new study by sociologist Mark Regenerus. Regenerus has published a paper arguing that children from heterosexual parents are better off than children raised by lesbian and gay parents. I recently posted that academic research actually shows that this is not true. Studies actually show that children of LGBTQI families are slightly better off than kids from heterosexual families with respect to aspiring to more progressive gender roles. In other respects they are similar, when you factor in class differences. 

Amanda notes that Regenerus’ research on gay and lesbian families has produced contradictory findings due to the study’s poorly conceived methodology. Simply put: Regenerus’ methods for data collection do not match his research questions (meaning the methods are invalid). Regenerus defines homosexuality according to anyone who has had a same-sex experience, without taking into account their subjective identities or family experiences. Regenerus has not controlled for the fact that some children from gay and lesbian families are being raised in single parent households. This generally puts any child at an economic disadvantage when compared to dual parent households. Amanda argues Regenerus’ findings are tinged with homophobia, possibly influenced by Regenerus’ ties to the Christian site that hosts his blog.

Sociologists are not above having their politics influence their research interests - including you, me and everyone else. We do not have to agree with one another; however we are trained to make our assumptions explicit and to have our methods match our research questions. I know many sociologists who conduct studies that go against my political and personal beliefs and yet I can engage in useful and challenging discussion because the data and methods warrant attention. Crappy science still warrants attention, but for all the wrong reasons. What a shame that Regenerus’ lax methodology will only fuel public fear and misunderstanding, rather than making a contribution to empirically-informed debate. 

Read Amanda’s excellent article at Sociology Lens.

Currently being haunted by my own writing… Duncan Watts wrote a wonderful piece on the myth of common sense for Freakonomics.com. Here’s part of what I wrote about that last year:

—-

What resonated most for me [about Watts’ argument] was the challenge that sociology faces in making our public contribution valued. Watts points out that sociologists deal with everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people – such as family, gender, social networks, fame and success, popular culture and so on. Due to the familiarity of these topics, most people think they can explain sociological phenomena using their common sense. Watts argues that common sense is problematic because the people we have around us have similar worldviews and this does not necessarily make informal observations valid. The problem with sociology is that unlike other sciences, such as physics or mathematics, sociologists do not offer up concrete answers or predictions…

Nevertheless, Duncan includes some great examples about the strengths of sociology being its methodological tools, which provide a way to understand the complexity of social behaviour and social change. Duncan writes:

"Clearly we’re a long way from a world in which cause and effect in social and economic systems can be established with the level of certainty we’ve come to expect from the physical sciences. In fact, the world of human behavior is sufficiently complicated and unpredictable that no matter how long or hard we try, we will always be stuck with some level of uncertainty, in which case leaders will have to do what they’ve always done and make the best decisions they can under the circumstances.

It sounds like a lot of effort for an uncertain payoff, but curing cancer has also proven to be an enormously complex undertaking, far more resistant to medical science than was once thought, yet no one is throwing up their hands on that one. It is time to apply the same admirable resolve to understand the world—no matter how long it takes—that we display in our struggles to address the important problems of physical and medical science to social problems as well”.

—-

Duncan’s words remain all too relevant for those of us working outside academia. Proving sociology’s relevance in the face of ‘common sense’ is no easy feat.