Posts Tagged ‘research’

Too Much Social Science?

This blog is one small example of a media- and internet-wide phenomenon: the torrent of reports on social science research. There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when some of us bemoaned the dearth of social science reporting in the media. That dearth motivated my experiment in the early 2000s with Contexts, a magazine of sociology for general readers, and then this blog a decade later. Now, I’m here to bemoan too much social science reporting.

The voracious appetite of the media, particularly the online venues, for “content” has combined with trends in the social sciences to produce an efflorescence of reports on social science findings. Unfortunately, there are many weeds as well as blossoms in this dense garden. Maybe there is too much social science reporting, too much tabloid social science journalism.


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Driving Blind

You are driving the van down an unlit, winding, country road on a dark night. A guy in the back seat leans over your shoulder and turns off your headlights. What the heck?!


That’s what the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to do. It voted to cancel the American Community Survey. That survey, run by the Census Bureau, largely replaced the “long form” questions that used to be on the decennial census. The ACS asks questions that shed light on Americans’ economic circumstances, housing situations, education, commuting patterns, and the like. It provides key information needed to know where we are going as a society and what the circumstances are in specific communities.


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Can’t Believe It

In the flurry of reviews – and comments on the reviews – of Stephen Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I spy a frequent complaint. (Here is my own analysis of Pinker, in the Boston Review.) The book’s central claim is that rates of killing, attacks, brutality, and war have — even given the 20th century’s world wars and genocides — sharply declined over human history. He must be wrong, the critics assert. He has miscounted, or used sleight of hand, or willfully ignored what is obvious to all, they say: that violence is up.


Why are such critics so intent on, so earnest in, defending the view that our time – this decade, the past century, the modern era – is the most violent time? The historical record is clear, as I noted in an earlier post, that rates of violence – and sadism and physical abuse – are at the lowest ever, at least in the West. And violence has been in a long, although unsteady, decline even in the United States (see here). This is not a controversial conclusion among scholars. Why do so many people nonetheless disbelieve?


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Stumbling in the Dark

I recently turned to one of the central sources of information about social trends in America, The Statistical Abstract of the United States, described on its web page as “since 1878, the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States.” Also on the web page was this notice, in bold red: 

The U.S. Census Bureau is terminating the collection of data for the Statistical Compendia program effective October 1, 2011. The Statistical Compendium program is comprised of the Statistical Abstract of the United States and its supplemental products . . . .

The notice goes on to explain that the elimination was a result of fiscal cutbacks and it advises readers to scour footnotes of old tables for the sources of the data and go there.

This budget-cutting – criticized by some on both the left and right – is annoying, but it is just one several trends in making access to information about our society more difficult, more costly. And thereby making it harder to understand what is happening in America.


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