Much of social sciences research is probably garbage/wrong

I saw this going viral They Studied Dishonesty. Was Their Work a Lie? regarding Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino, whose research into dishonesty may have, well, been a lie. Whenever someone is busted for deception or dishonesty, whether it’s steroids in baseball, steroids in the WWE/WWF, academic dishonesty or malfeasance, or YouTube fitness gurus taking steroids and claiming to be ‘natural’, it’s always the tip of an iceberg. What are the odds that the cheaters who are found out are the only ones.

The lines between research and storytelling have become increasingly blurred. Read any science article in a mainstream publication like The Atlantic or The New York Times, or a Malcolm Gladwell book: it always follows the same template, which is to begin with a story that ends on a cliffhanger, introduce research and scientists, and finally wrap up the story. Dan Ariely’s backstory of being a teenage burn victim somehow factors into his research as adding credibility. Ideally, the anecdotal should be separate from the actual data, but research which may be dubious is given the benefit of the doubt because it confirms what we want to believe through narration, which confirms or revivifies a preexisting experience or bias. It’s like “Ah, I experienced implicit racism or bias myself…it must be correct!”

Not just the science of dishonesty, but I think persuasion techniques or persuasion research is also bullshit. I posit probably very little of social science research, save for ‘hard’ quantitative finance stuff (which can be made mathematically rigorous), is of any value due to methodological errors or the studies being intrinsically flawed or irredeemable to begin with, even if we assume the researchers are 100% honest.

I would go so far as to say even a lot findings we take for granted as correct may also be dubious. For example, studies that show how married couples are happier. Or studies that show how single people are less happy. Or studies that purport young people are less happy today compared to 70 years ago. There are many confounders here. Happiness is not some fixed thing, but self-reported happiness is subjective and changes over time. Happiness today is not the same as happiness in 1950; people alive today are not the same as people in 1950. Maybe happiness today means something different than it did generations ago.

Sometimes it’s as simple as correlation not being equal to causation. Studies have shown that successful dieters, for example, eat breakfast at a higher rate compared to the general population. Does this mean breakfast has special metabolic properties or is the key to weight loss? Not really. Likely what is going on here is that dieters tend to eat small dinners and not eat before bed, so they wake up very hungry having just fasted for 10-14 hours, hence breakfast.

Or in economics, does raising the minimum wage hurt or help employment? No one knows. Economists on either side of the debate can cite studies that show that raising or lowering wages hurts or helps for certain cities or regions, but despite considerable research and debate into this matter, it’s still inconclusive. What value is gained by this is from a no one has any idea.