To the Editor:
In “When Social Scientists Ask the Wrong Questions” (The Chronicle Review, May 17), Strohminger and Táíwò address an important issue, but they mislead when they describe the selection of research questions as a matter of bias. The concept of bias implies deviation from an objective course of action. This clearly does apply to the pursuit of an investigation, but it does not apply to selecting what questions to investigate. Decisions about this rely on a range of considerations, and amongst these is a set of value priorities, indicating what questions are worth investigation. There can be reasonable disagreement about those priorities — there is no objective means of determining what ought to be given priority, even though there are good and bad reasons. Nor will setting research agendas “based on evidence about how [one’s] research fits into larger social and political dynamics” resolve the matter — since there can be much disagreement about this, too — even though it may assist in making a good decision.
Furthermore, the authors do not provide any evidence to show that corporate influence is prevalent in most fields of social science. In the case of the second example they use — nudge theory — their complaint is not about the selection of research questions but rather that policies relying on nudging are ineffective; though the evidence suggests that some such policies are effective at particular times, whilst others are not. But it is not clear how investigating policies of this kind necessarily reflects corporate bias. While it may be true that “the focus on individual-level interventions has distracted from more-serious study of systemic change,” the authors are assuming that systemic change (of some kind) is likely to be more effective, and is feasible. That should not be taken for granted, since the evidence suggests that such change is much more difficult to bring about and often has unintended and undesirable consequences. That is not an argument against attempting it, but it should not be presented as a simple and obviously desirable alternative.
The authors are certainly right to point out how corporations try to use research as a means of shaping the public agenda, and that this may well mean that the best decisions are not made about what should be investigated. But, as I have suggested, determining what are the best decisions is more complicated than they imply. When the authors claim that “today’s social scientists have become the unwitting victims of corporate capture,” I don’t think they are accurately reflecting the huge field of research that social science covers. In many areas, the focus is on social inequalities of various kinds, often with claims made about the need for “structural change,” albeit usually without much clarification of which structures are to be changed, how, and with what likely consequences. Corporate capture is certainly a potential problem, but so too is capture by ideologies of the Left as well as of the Right.
I couldn’t agree more with the authors that “science requires a certain measure of independence from broader political struggles” and that “this independence is what ensures that science responds to evidence, and not just to political machinations.” But I am unpersuaded that community control of scientific agendas is compatible with this.
Emeritus Professor of Educational and Social Research
The Open University
Milton Keynes, England