Behavioral and Social Scientists: Witch Doctors of the 21st Century?

Behavioral and Social Scientists: Witch Doctors of the 21st Century? September 29, 2015

By Thomas M. Doran.

Someone’s got to say it. Many, if not most, behavioral and social scientists are wreaking havoc. But how dare we question them, because they know better than we do. Don’t they have access to knowledge and information we don’t? Don’t they offer a progressive vision of the next stage of human development, calling us to abandon our former bigotry and superstitions?

A recent Wall Street Journal reference to an article by Monya Baker—“Over half of psychological studies fail reproducibility test”—states:

Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature. In the biggest project of its kind, Brian Nosek, a social psychologist and head of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, and 269 co-authors repeated work reported in 98 original papers from three psychology journals, to see if they independently came up with the same results.

 The studies they took on ranged from whether expressing insecurities perpetuates them to differences in how children and adults respond to fear stimuli, to effective ways to teach arithmetic. According to the replicators’ qualitative assessments, as previously reported by “Nature”, only 39 of the 100 replication attempts were successful.

Thirty-nine percent. As an engineer and scientist who has seen plenty of faulty and suspicious data in my thirty-plus years of practice, I would argue that until data, and the speculative conclusions proceeding from this data, can be independently replicated and confirmed, we should maintain a prudent skepticism, especially when “experts” purport to overturn conventional wisdom. Good grief, if hard sciences like physics and biology aren’t immune to shaky speculation, why should we expect it of the behavioral and social sciences?

Another recent article in the Journal, entitled “New Research on Overcoming the Loneliness Spiral,” states, “Now, two new studies by…leading authorities on the psychology and neuroscience of loneliness show that…people’s brains operate differently when they are lonely.” Without judging the validity of these studies, why are we so willing to promote research that still needs to be independently replicated, tested, vetted? Shouldn’t we at least include disclaimers to this effect, knowing how common it is for findings to be retracted or pared back? There’s a chronic failure to test so-called expertise in relation to empirical evidence—what really happens versus what the experts say is going to happen.

I once collected all the analytical data I thought was needed to design a water treatment process for a graphite-laden waste. Problem was, I didn’t collect the broad spectrum of data that was really needed, nor did I spend enough time observing the processes that produced the waste. The treatment process didn’t work as it was supposed to work. Too much reliance on my preconceived ideas rather than a carefully designed experiment and letting the data speak for itself.

Sadly, the behavioral and social sciences in the 21st century are obsessed with race, gender, sexual orientation, victimization, identity, rather than the rigorous science that requires a thoughtful design of experiment, careful collection and analysis of data, identification of risks to data integrity, and caution about speculative conclusions.

Many behavioral scientists are doing honest work, but they are drowned out on the public stage by those whose work is driven by ideological agendas masquerading as science, conscripting the luster of science to sell their personal beliefs, or to juice up public visibility.

Today’s ideologically driven “science” starts from first principles, just as religions start from first principles. The first principles that guide many in the behavioral and social sciences include a materialistic explanation for everything—everything has a physical explanation; humans are just smarter animals; human rights are properly conferred by states or global organizations rather than being intrinsic to a person at all stages of life; gender is arbitrary, changeable, like a coat or shoes, and ought to be changed if a person is unhappy; morality is historical and cultural, meaning no moral norms are objectively better than any other; and the human race can and should be “improved” by certain strategies that are rarely called eugenics anymore, but sound suspiciously like eugenics.

What’s so wrong with these first principles? Aren’t they likely to produce more contentment, less suffering, and more efficiently run societies? First principles in the scientific realm should be reserved for indisputable things, like the laws of physics and mathematics, not the ideological principles listed above. And empirically speaking, on a practical level, why have societies that have operated according to most or all of these principles been hells on Earth? Great men and women in the grip of materialistic and relativistic societies included Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Cuban Ladies in White, and Liu Xiaobo. These, and many others, have been mashed by these Animal Farms.

A prime example is the recent canonization of Junipero Serra, a man whom behavioral and social scientists claim imposed his religious beliefs on the Native Americans in California as a representative of a patriarchal and imperialistic society. This is a man who asserted that the human being is more than just another animal, who suggested there was more than just this material world. To our modern “scientists,” such a man is to be deconstructed, facts and history and heroism notwithstanding, because their first principles require it, and not because there is compelling objective evidence to support their assertions.

If we allow these so-called experts and their ideologies to guide us, then materialism is bound to govern on the societal and personal level. I’ll go even further and say that determinism, the idea that we can only think and act as we are programmed by genes and experience to think and act, must govern.

Race, gender, sexual attraction, and natural talents are not the determinants our modern witch doctors would have us believe. We are called to do what we can, with the limitations our health and experiences impose on us, to be receptive to holy spiritual influences, i.e., grace, and to resist demonic influence and pursue time-tested wisdom so as to strengthen our wills to make good choices.

Don’t let the Great and Powerful Oz mesmerize you with his pyrotechnics. Dare him to prove it. Double dare him.

Thomas M. Doran is an adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University and the author of “Toward the Gleam,” “Terrapin,” and “Iota” (Ignatius Press). He is a frequent contributor to the Detroit Free Press, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and others on the environment, infrastructure, and public policy.


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2 responses to “Behavioral and Social Scientists: Witch Doctors of the 21st Century?”

  1. I don’t think you understand the social sciences very well. Most psychology research does not focus on the issues that you are describing-there are studies on language development, moral decision making, game theory, the Stroop effect, memory research, measurement validation studies, theory of mind, medical treatment compliance, obedience, and much more. Despite the media focus on hyping up articles, most social scientists wouldn’t discuss studies with such certainty about them.

    They don’t assume relativism. It is methodologically neutral on cultures for practical reasons, but allows for philosophers and others in the humanities to interpret the findings and make value judgments. It is just like how Scott Atran studied terrorist groups-he might have described them in methodologically neutral terms, but was it supposed to imply their behavior is morally acceptable-no.