Is social science akin to a cargo cult?

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EXCERPTS: When white people began visiting the islands of the Pacific Ocean, the native peoples, fascinated by the abundance of good things coming to them, assiduously observed the visitors’ behaviour. They concluded that the great birds in the sky, filled with packing cases bearing the inscription “cargo,” were gifts from the gods. So, they began to imitate the newcomers, building runways in the middle of the jungle, lighting fires based on the pattern of airport landing lights, and constructing small control towers out of wood and bamboo. Then they awaited the benevolence of the gods, but the gods were not compliant. The planes did not land on their runways, despite the enormous effort they had put into building them and the meticulousness with which they copied the buildings and equipment of the white people. Even today, this cargo cult persists in some corners of Oceania.

[...] Richard Feynman, a noted physicist and Nobel Prize winner in 1974, compared the social sciences to the cargo cult. Representatives of the social sciences, he argued, imitate the behaviour of other sciences but to no effect. Feynman did not end with this comparison, but added examples from the fields of rehabilitation, psychotherapy, and parapsychology. He stated that despite the enormous effort invested in researching and perfecting teaching methods, students’ results are worse every year. The same goes for criminality and the other problems which the social sciences attempt to resolve.

Was Feynman right? In many fields, great effort has produced paltry results and sometimes even worsened the prevailing state of affairs. In December 2020, a comprehensive meta-analysis was published covering 50 years of research into the efficacy of various interventions aimed at preventing suicide and self-harm. [...] The results were depressing. The efficacy of all methods examined was found to be very low, effects do not last long after intervention, and there is no real difference between the various methods.

But most striking is the discovery that, despite the nearly exponential growth in the amount of research into these methods, their effectiveness today is as low as it was 50 years ago. Within the diversity of approaches, no indicators were discovered which would have a crucial influence on the effectiveness of intervention.

[...] This meta-analysis is not the only study of its kind showing the powerlessness of the social sciences... Additionally, other data indicate that the number of suicides can be adjusted by methods other than social or psychological. Until now, the most successful method of suicide prevention has been various kinds of restriction on means and opportunity. ... Restricting access to firearms, poisonous medicines, intoxicating substances such as alcohol, and other means has also reduced the overall number of suicides. ... Even simple deterrents such as barriers on bridges and metro and railway platforms have an effect on the suicide rate.

[...] Media coverage of suicides also provides some shocking pointers. The suicide of a well-known person is often followed by a wave of imitators who take their lives in the same way. This phenomenon is known as the Werther effect, or “copycat” suicides. The discovery of this effect led to an international agreement restricting the public reporting of suicides... However, wrapping suicide in media taboo is a superficial half-measure, not least because the existence of a Werther effect has not been decisively established...

[...] Conclusion. Social science can be a valuable means of understanding the world and improving human well-being when it is rigorously and practically applied. This approach requires falsifying hypotheses, continuous improving the methods used, and abandoning those that proved to be ineffective as a result of research. The ritualistic approach, on the other hand, misleads because it is based on empirically unconfirmed assumptions, often adopted long ago, and the developed methods are cultivated regardless of the results they bring.

Why, then, when looking for methods to prevent suicide do we rely on approaches to social science which cultivate ritualistic methods rather than practical ones? Even today these rituals are stubbornly repeated, even though they have not yet persuaded any planes to land with their longed-for cargo. Instead, they have brought respect and recognition, and consolidated the social position of their priests... (MORE - details)

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