Wednesday, August 04, 2010

What Social Science Does—and Doesn’t—Know

human_condition A highly recommended essay in City Journal by Jim Manzi about just how little we know about the human condition:

But what do we know from the social-science experiments that we have already conducted? After reviewing experiments not just in criminology but also in welfare-program design, education, and other fields, I propose that three lessons emerge consistently from them.

First, few programs can be shown to work in properly randomized and replicated trials. Despite complex and impressive-sounding empirical arguments by advocates and analysts, we should be very skeptical of claims for the effectiveness of new, counterintuitive programs and policies, and we should be reluctant to trump the trial-and-error process of social evolution in matters of economics or social policy.

Second, within this universe of programs that are far more likely to fail than succeed, programs that try to change people are even more likely to fail than those that try to change incentives. A litany of program ideas designed to push welfare recipients into the workforce failed when tested in those randomized experiments of the welfare-reform era; only adding mandatory work requirements succeeded in moving people from welfare to work in a humane fashion. And mandatory work-requirement programs that emphasize just getting a job are far more effective than those that emphasize skills-building. Similarly, the list of failed attempts to change people to make them less likely to commit crimes is almost endless—prisoner counseling, transitional aid to prisoners, intensive probation, juvenile boot camps—but the only program concept that tentatively demonstrated reductions in crime rates in replicated RFTs was nuisance abatement, which changes the environment in which criminals operate. (This isn’t to say that direct behavior-improvement programs can never work; one well-known program that sends nurses to visit new or expectant mothers seems to have succeeded in improving various social outcomes in replicated independent RFTs.)

And third, there is no magic. Those rare programs that do work usually lead to improvements that are quite modest, compared with the size of the problems they are meant to address or the dreams of advocates…

At the moment, it is certain that we do not have anything remotely approaching a scientific understanding of human society. And the methods of experimental social science are not close to providing one within the foreseeable future. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably. Until then, we need to keep stumbling forward with trial-and-error learning as best we can.

Read the whole thing.

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