Making progress in the hardest science

I’ve been using this idea a lot recently, but he got there (7 years) before me!

I haven’t extensively read other blog posts, but this one at least left out one extra point that I think is interesting/important: the traditionally termed “hard” sciences (physics et al.) are also called in some cultures “exact sciences.” In other words, “hard” sciences get their extra science-y sheen in significant part because they *are* easier [to get exact answers/confirmation/disconfirmation] for. In other words, the snottiness some evince is really a way of saying “This science is more rigorous *because it is easier*.”

Ok, two things: the other one is that insofar as critiques of social science are of the “but you can’t make generalizations” type, the person who says this is essentially saying *it is better or equally valid for us to use our own often uninformed instincts and gut to understand social dynamics over systematic, if challenging, study.” Not only is this a silly point of view for a scientist, it is also something that SOCIAL SCIENCE has shown is demonstrably untrue: our instincts are *not* the best possible indicators of real social dynamics….

The Hardest Science

The name of this blog comes from a talk I gave at the SPSPconference.

The talk was in a training symposium for people starting out in academic psychology. People at various stages of their careers were invited to talk about how we approach research. I titled my talk “Making Progress in the Hardest Science,” and the first third of the talk was a half-serious, half joking explanation of the title.

The idea is that you often hear people arrange the sciences on a continuum from “hard” to “soft,” with physics at the hard end and psychology at the soft end. The implicit message is that the “hard” sciences are more scientific. But that’s not based on anything fundamental or substantive. As best as I can tell, it’s about scienciness. We have these preconceptions and stereotypes about what science is supposed to be about — big fancy equipment…

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Everything is fucked: The syllabus

A great collection of thought and consideration of current crises facing academic pursuits, “evidence-based” work, science, and scholarship broadly. And pretty funny.

The Hardest Science

PSY 607: Everything is Fucked
Prof. Sanjay Srivastava
Class meetings: Mondays 9:00 – 10:50 in 257 Straub
Office hours: Held on Twitter at your convenience (@hardsci)

In a much-discussed article at Slate, social psychologist Michael Inzlicht told a reporter, “Meta-analyses are fucked” (Engber, 2016). What does it mean, in science, for something to be fucked? Fucked needs to mean more than that something is complicated or must be undertaken with thought and care, as that would be trivially true of everything in science. In this class we will go a step further and say that something is fucked if it presents hard conceptual challenges to which implementable, real-world solutions for working scientists are either not available or routinely ignored in practice.

The format of this seminar is as follows: Each week we will read and discuss 1-2 papers that raise the question of whether something is fucked. Our focus…

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Paper recommendation: motivational crowding (out) in conservation

A great paper recommendation and some reflection by Joern Fischer.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Rode J, Gómez-Baggethun E, Krause T. 2015. Motivation crowding by economic incentives in conservation policy: A review of the empirical evidence. Ecological Economics 2015 Sep; 117:270-282; DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.11.019

In a conservation context, “crowding” refers to effect that economic incentives to engage in conservation action have on people’s intrinsic motivation to engage in such action. Crowding in occurs when economic incentives further strengthen intrinsic motivation, while crowding out refers to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, following economic incentives.

This paper reviews the evidence generated to date of motivational crowding in a conservation context. This is very timely because many modern conservation schemes use economic incentives. Arguably, when conservationists routinely advocated stronger regulation in the 1980s, right now, they routinely argue for the use of economic instruments.

This article shows that calls for economic incentives need to be scrutinised carefully in any given…

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How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

How does complexity thinking interact with policy analysis? Last for today from Professor Paul Cairney.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Presentation to ‘A jurisprudence of complexity? Rethinking the relationship between law and society’, University of Lancaster, 25th September 2015

It is customary to describe complexity theory as new, exciting, and interdisciplinary. Its advocates suggest that it offers a new way of seeing the world, a scientific paradigm to replace ‘reductionism’, a way for many academic disciplines to use the same language to explain key processes, and the potential for an impressively broad and rich empirical base. Robert Geyer and I explore these themes in the introduction and conclusion to our edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

In this short discussion, I present a more critical discussion of these high expectations, examining how they translate into something new for political and policy science, and asking: what does complexity theory offer policy studies? I suggest that its focus on greater interdisciplinarity is potentially misleading, that its theoretical appeal…

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Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

Key issues on “evidence-based policy” by Cairney.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

In other posts on evidence-based policymaking I’m critical of this idea: the main barriers to getting evidence into policy relate to the presentation of scientific evidence, timing, and the scientific skills of policymakers. You may overcome these barriers without closing the ‘evidence-policy gap’ and, for example, spend too much effort trying to reduce scientific uncertainty on the size of a policy problem without addressing ambiguityand the tendency of policymakers to be willing to consider only a limited range of solutions.

In this post, I try to reframe this discussion by generally describing the EBPM process as a series of political choices made as much by scientists as policymakers. The choices associated primarily with policymakers are also made by academics, and they relate to inescapable trade-offs rather than policymaking problems that can somehow be solved with more evidence.

In this context, a key role of policy analysis is to…

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What is Policy?

“What is policy?” Paul Cairney’s useful introductory materials continues (or, starts I suppose this appears to be episode 1).

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off…

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

More from Professor Cairney’s “1000 words” series on policy analysis, this time, the psychology of policymaking.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

(podcast download)

Psychology is at the heart of policymaking, but the literature on psychology is not always at the heart of policy theory. Most theories identify ‘bounded rationality’ which, on its own, is little more than a truism: people do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate all consequences of their actions. Consequently, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics – perhaps to produce ‘good-enough’ decisions. This is where psychology comes in, to:

  1. Describe the thought processes that people use to turn a complex world into something simple enough to understand and/ or respond to; and
  2. To compare types of thought process, such as (a) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour and (b) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly.

Where does policy theory come in? It seeks to situate…

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

A cogent, accessible discussion of “institutions” and “new institutionalism” from political science. These have been key concepts in my intellectual development and work.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

UPP box 4.1 institutions

(podcast download)

The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.

These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:

  • The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
  • Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’…

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These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

More from political scientist Paul Cairney, this time on evidence based-policy & its disconnects.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

This is one of two posts on the use of scientific evidence in environmental policy (a broad term which can include climate change, food, land management, and energy policy). In this one I insult some of the people reacting to the Scottish Government’s decision on GM. In the next one, I present preliminary evidence on a systematic review of the use of evidence in environmental policy.

The Scottish Government recently decided to reinforce a moratorium on the use of GM crops in Scotland. It produced a strong response from many individual scientists, and groups representing scientists, which seems predictable enough. That’s what you would expect some scientists to do if you don’t act solely on their advice.

What I didn’t quite expect was a more general, and often hyperbolic, criticism by non-scientist commentators about the failings of policymakers to listen to scientists.

The general problem for non-scientist commentators is…

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Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Another excellent post on Kingdon’s “multiple streams model” of policy making.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can…

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