Monday, 20 January 2014

Maths and social science...


The research methods lecture for my MSc sticks in my mind. Not just because I have a curiosity about different research methods and their rationale but also because the lecturer told us not to worry about maths, indeed that she wasn't any good at maths.

Sadly, the results of such wilful ignorance look like this:

"Not many psychologists are very good at maths," says Brown. "Not many psychologists are even good at the maths and statistics you have to do as a psychologist. Typically you'll have a couple of people in the department who understand it. Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study. A lot of people can get a PhD in psychology without having those things at their fingertips. And that's the stuff you're meant to know. Losada's maths were of the kind you're not meant to encounter in psychology. The maths you need to understand the Losada system is hard but the maths you need to understand that this cannot possibly be true is relatively straightforward."

In the social sciences (and this is psychology among the most maths rich of these disciplines) the use of maths appears almost discouraged - we're told about qualitative research, how it gives greater insight and understand than mere number crunching. And, when someone comes up with a complicated quantitative explanation of everything ("The Spirit Level" springs to mind as a good example here) the legions of non-mathematicians leap upon the research with glee and excitement. Sadly, what they can't do is explain the maths.

It is a deceptive idea that we can call something 'science' - even with the qualifier 'social' - and then pretend that it can be studied without a reasonable degree of competence in maths and with research methods based on experiment, empirical study and data analysis. This isn't to dismiss qualitative studies - I used to be Planning Director in an ad agency, I love a nice focus group - but to say that, for all their value, such methods simply aren't science.


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