Why should we provide funding to social science research?

The Coburn report blamed one of my papers (co-authored with other people in our lab and part of a larger project funded by the NSF) as being a waste of taxpayer money and framed it in such a misleading manner that I initially did not think it was worth responding to. Apparently, many other researchers were also “attacked” with factually incorrect interpretations of their work (see Gureckis’ post on his research on baby names).

Of course I could be defensive and write about how the paper was misinterpreted. For example, the $315,000 was not a study about Farmville, but a study on how people collaborate on social network sites. There are at least four major projects supported by the grant; we already have several published papers, with several more in progress. (Not to mention that the university takes a huge cut, so the amount that we actually are left with to do research is far less)

But even if the $315,000 was used to study Farmville- which it wasn’t- what is wrong about that? You may think that these games on Facebook are really stupid, but if 50 million people are playing them, why isn’t it worth examining what the effects of those games are? You may think that our findings (e.g., people who play with their “loose” connections became closer with those people through playing the game) are simplistic. However, there have been years and years of studies on how technology like the Internet makes people more isolated and lonely.  But wait, relationships can become stronger through technology? Why is it that so? How? For whom?

One of the reasons this study was so interesting was because we had no intention of studying Facebook games at all. In fact, we were looking at how people manage their relationships with other people, seek information, and engage in various activities on Facebook. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the interviewees talked about how they used games as a means of relationship management. If you think about the fact that most Facebook games are asynchronous, it’s really interesting that these people were perceiving game play as a means of communication.

This of course, led to follow-up studies, one of which I will be presenting next month , about the role of reciprocity in building strong relationships. I found that even if people have no motivation to become friends, if they are playing a game that encourages reciprocity, they will be more inclined to help the other person, even if they are complete strangers.

The problem with interpreting social sciences in the way Coburn does is that human behavior is complex; thus, we social scientists try to test larger phenomena through specific examples. It’s different from natural sciences, where the findings should be taken literally. Social science should not be taken literally, one must always ask: what is the bigger picture?

I disagree with people who claim that the government should not fund social sciences. Social science is about understanding human behavior and trying to figure out why we do what we do and what the consequences of those actions are, both at an individual and societal level. Are we going to find the cure for cancer? No, but we can find out how people communicate to cope with their pain, or how disease affects other psychological issues, or what kind of societal issues arise from portrayal of cancer in the media, etc. How can one argue that finding the cure for a disease that affects 20% of the population is of greater or lesser value than the happiness and well-being of a 100% of the population?

The problem, perhaps something that social scientists could be blamed for, is that we are not very good at communicating how our research could benefit society. Firstly, we don’t do it because it’s speculation, secondly, because the scope of that speculation is just too broad, thirdly, sometimes we don’t always know, and finally, no one listens to us. Our research has a lot of practical implications, but are we responsible for making those practical implications? Should we be? For example, decades of studies on social influence show over and over again that if you put people into a group, people will start changing their attitudes depending on who else is in the group and what those people think. And yet we currently have the trial-by-jury system, which, according to more than 60 years of social psychology research, is perhaps the most subjective, biased method of decision-making.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone like Coburn, who is in the position of taking research and putting it to good use, had a better understanding of what the research actually means? Each paper is but a drop of water. Some drops are underground reserves that will be tapped into in the future; some drops are part of a stream, others a waterfall, but we need those drops, because they have the potential to become a stronger force.

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