When Ideology Drives Social Science

Article by Michael Jindra and Arthur Sakamoto: Last summer in these pages, Mordechai Levy-Eichel and Daniel Scheinerman uncovered a major flaw in Richard Jean So’s Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction, one that rendered the book’s conclusion null and void. Unfortunately, what they found was not an isolated incident. In complex areas like the study of racial inequality, a fundamentalism has taken hold that discourages sound methodology and the use of reliable evidence about the roots of social problems.

We are not talking about mere differences in interpretation of results, which are common. We are talking about mistakes so clear that they should cause research to be seriously questioned or even disregarded. A great deal of research — we will focus on examinations of Asian American class mobility — rigs its statistical methods in order to arrive at ideologically preferred conclusions.

Most sophisticated quantitative work in sociology involves multivariate research, often in a search for causes of social problems. This work might ask how a particular independent variable (e.g., education level) “causes” an outcome or dependent variable (e.g., income). Or it could study the reverse: How does parental income influence children’s education?

Human behavior is too complicated to be explained by only one variable, so social scientists typically try to “control” for various causes simultaneously. If you are trying to test for a particular cause, you want to isolate that cause and hold all other possible causes constant. One can control for a given variable using what is called multiple regression, a statistical tool that parcels out the separate net effects of several variables simultaneously.

If you want to determine whether income causes better education outcomes, you’d want to compare everyone from a two-parent family, since family status might be another causal factor, for instance. You’d also want to see the effect of family status by comparing everyone with similar incomes. And so on for other variables.

The problem is that there are potentially so many variables that a researcher inevitably leaves some out…(More)”.