We Blinded Us with Pseudo-Science

Via Isegoria, an account of a 1986 experiment at UC Berkeley. In a nutshell, the International Studied Department picked some number of class sections where volunteer “student leaders” were put in charge of distributing grade points for class participation. There was no formal accountability.

The professors handed out a survey the first day of class about government, one of the questions being “Do you believe Democracy is the best form of government in the world?” Nearly 100% said yes. The next class, the professors told the students that as this was a class about government that they would be asked to take responsibility for operations in class. Student leaders would be responsible for giving participation points [twenty percent of their grade] as well as points for attendance. The student leaders would also be responsible for operations in the class such as handing out and collecting papers and the behavior of the other students. The professors told students they wanted this system to be efficient.

The professors told the leaders they could use or not use the points as they saw fit. He expected things to run efficiently and if he had to intervene to get things done, they would lose points.

The basic point of the simulation was that if a group accepts `efficiency’ as the prime value in a government, instead of `fairness’, some form of dictatorship will usually follow.

Nowhere is it established, or even plausibly suggested, that the last paragraph is anything but pure bullshit.

Go read it. I’m not kidding. They pulled that conclusion right out of their asses. 1,384 words, and nowhere do they even provide a rationale for imagining that the leaders accepted “efficiency” as the prime value in their government, much less the entire group, or that it had any influence on anything anybody did. The kids did precisely what they were powerfully rewarded for doing; how is it ruled out that the reward wasn’t responsible? Spoiler: It never even crossed the researchers’ minds that people might respond to incentives, therefore they saw no need to control for that effect. The professor mumbled a spell about “efficiency”, therefore the behavior of an entire group of kids with unrelated powerful incentives is suddenly motivated primarily by a concern for efficiency? Pull the other one. Was there a control group where the professors mumbled an equivalent spell about “fairness” or “democracy” or anything else? Of course not. If there had been, I suggest that the outcome would have been the same, because it would’ve been driven by the same bad incentives and the same lack of accountability. I’d be happy to put money on that. Were the experimenters equally happy to take that bet? I can’t say, but they sure didn’t try.

These guys aren’t even social sciences, they’re international relations. Where a sociologist would know enough to go through the ritual motions of cargo cult science, these guys didn’t even get that far. Nevertheless, the spells they mumbled look like “science” to some reasonably intelligent and “educated” people. And by “intelligent” I mean their SAT scores were probably better than mine.

Here’s the thing, though: A lot of us consider the social sciences to be pseudo-science. But it appears that in the 2012 US presidential election campaign, the winning side used a lot of social science researchers in their get-out-the-vote effort, and they got out more votes in some states than anybody else expected they would. Could be good luck. There’s no way to run that election again with different guys advising that campaign. But it’s possible that those guys aren’t as dumb as they look. Just because they always have a public plateful of pretty lies for you when it benefits them, doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t handle hard truths privately themselves, when that serves their interests instead.


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