Posted by: CJ | April 26, 2012

pop science vs. pop social science

There’s something that confuses me, or at least that seems interesting, about pop science vs. pop social science.

When I read the in-depth studies in social science journals (which admittedly isn’t often, but does happen from time to time), I don’t actually get that much more out of it than just reading the pop social science accounts. Largely all I get out of it is a deeper understanding of where their statistical methods or mathematical models rely on strong assumptions. But in most cases you don’t need to delve deep into the math to see that. A lot of social science either is BS on its face or it has reasonable conclusions and explanations, and reading the math doesn’t add or subtract from it.

(There are, of course, cases where this isn’t true. Things like modern finance, where there’s such an impenetrable fog of jargon and math that it’s impossible to understand what’s going on without delving into some of their methodology. But there seem to be very few exceptions in that regard.)

In contrast, I get a lot more out of reading the nitty-gritty details version of something in physical or biological sciences than I do reading the pop science version. The pop science version inevitably elides details that are very important for understanding what’s going on. It’s almost always a translation to ‘lay-person speak’ of something rather complicated. The sole exception to this I’ve found is in some (though certainly not all) areas of biological science it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize what’s going on in the small scale.

Anyways, this is on my mind because I’ve seen a lot of book recommendations for social science stuff lately. Sociology, economics, political science books intended for non-specialists. And I’m not really sure what inferences to draw about the nature of disciplines that are fairly accessible without knowing much deep ‘foundational knowledge’. But it seems like I should be able to draw some inferences from it.


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