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September 21, 2007

Advocacy Research

Well, yes, Mick:

This highlights a real growing problem – the rise of advocacy research. Instead of spinning the wheel and seeing what evidence emerges, many researchers now start from a political assumption, then look for “facts” to fit. Advocate researchers typically aim to “discover” that their pet social problem is even worse than imagined, and that we are all at risk. Playing up the issue of problem gambling is a favourite game of those whose real aim is to whip the mass of “problem people” into line. So they were shocked when the commission survey denied them the “right” result.

But haven't you noticed that it's the newspapers that make the most of it? From Jessica Alba's "sexiest walk" to the EOC's "40% gender pay gap" , the only reason these studies are knocked up is because the press splashes them all over the front pages.

September 21, 2007 in Science | Permalink


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Just a mo, didn't Einstein's theory of relativity start from a theory which prompted a search for “facts” to fit. As it turned out, in a long succession of testing the theory against observables, the theory has come out well, which is why it is now regarded as part of the broad scientific consensus.

The special problem with the social sciences - and sometimes with the biological sciences as well - is that human beings are sentient and cognizant creatures who are apt to react to changes in, puzzles over or predictions about their environmental circumstances, including theories about humans and their behaviour, which is why so much energy is still dissipated over debates about Darwin's theory of evolution and why the Hawthorne Experiments relating to working environments came up with some of the surprising observations that it did:

And there are also the disturbing implications of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments:

Unsurprisingly, the social scientists may encounter especially difficult challenges accommodating some observed facts, such as the fact that many people often act irrationally, which runs counter to a recurrent assumption underpinning much mainstream economic theory as was demonstrated in this lecture about the Paradox of Choice:

On reflection, I'm unconvinced that the distinction made between "advocacy" and other kinds of research in the social sciences is quite as sharp and well-defined as some would have us believe. I think perhaps the crucial differentiating factor is the motivation or the intention of the researcher.

Posted by: Bob B | Sep 21, 2007 10:59:25 AM