Social Science’s Two Masks

Social science has two masks:

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The Comedy mask looks for unheralded interventions, policy-relevant effects, the Little Thing that Will Make a Big Difference.

The Tragedy mask collects boring, nationally representative, well-measured data, year after year, that says nothing works.

The Comedy mask is Michael LaCour, running a multi-wave randomized controlled trial for thousands of respondents on grants he won as a graduate student, showing that a brief conversation with an out gay person totally transforms respondents’ opinions about gay marriage long afterwards.

The Tragedy mask says that opinions are generally stable, and that the data and the grants were both fake.

The Comedy mask says if we can just identify the greatest teachers and assign them to the kids who need them most, we can erase the effects of poverty and the gaps in achievement between groups.

The Tragedy mask says that, when you correct for the unobserved differences among kids, teachers make relatively little difference in how much kids learn.

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Sometimes, the comedy is a bit dark, but it’s comedy all the same.  When you say that highly religious Muslim immigrant kids underachieve because their moms fasted when they were pregnant, or that massive waves of default in minority communities were due to “predatory lending” by rogue banks rather than massive government support, you may think that you’re staring grim-faced into the injustice of the world.

But you’re not. You’re still insisting that the Right and Good can prevail and heal the wounded land.

Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life, said Aristotle. The Comedic approach to social science treats people as worse than they could be, the Tragic approach says that people aren’t going to get much better than they already are.

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Look, some things Make a Difference. Penicillin. Pesticides. Fluoride. The Haber-Bosch process for fixing ammonia. Using the right seeds. Rural electrification. Gas lines to your house. Shitting in toilets instead of on the ground.

And I tend to think that most of our current social arrangements-universal schooling in the first place, for instance-and even some of our goody-two-shoes poverty programs aren’t doing much harm.

But as long as we keep asking social scientists to find ways to change the world instead of describing it, we’ll keep getting a pocketful of lies.

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