Our Scientistic Age

24 January 2007 at 12:36 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Maxwell Gross at Right Reason points us to an AP story linking teen promiscuity to raunchy pop music. (Here is the study referred to in the news item.) Notes Max: “A sure sign of the scientism of our age is the presence of those who will not believe a blindingly obvious truism unless preceded by the phrase, ‘studies show. . . .'”

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. spostrel  |  24 January 2007 at 4:44 pm

    The summary of the study suggests that its findings are not secure. It has no control on who listens to what music. The obvious alternative hypothesis is that inherently promiscuous people like to listen to sexually explicit lyrics. So regardless of whether it comports with “common sense,” the causal conclusion should be taken as unproven.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  24 January 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Yes, that is right, of course. But the general point that a lot of social-science research is extremely silly is, IMHO, still valid.

  • 3. Max Goss  |  25 January 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you for the link, Mr. Klein.

    SPostrel: Yep, the study was pretty shoddy. But lay aside the study for a moment. Don’t you think that, all else being equal, habitually listening to raunchy music tends to promote raunchy behavior?

    Please note that I am not challenging your suggestion that people who engage in raunchy behavior are more likely to enjoy raunchy music. I am sure this is true, but it does not challenge my point that the causal arrow runs in the other direction as well, and that no one needs a study to tell him as much.

  • 4. spostrel  |  25 January 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Max: Actually, I’m doubtful, though open to the possibility, that listening to raunchy music actually causes raunchy behavior. Most people don’t process popular media as marching orders or even an accurate depiction of the world. They instinctively understand that the performer is role-playing for dramatic effect, just as children pick up on the idea of make-believe long before they can read. The causal arrow really is a question that requires careful analysis (I don’t care if you call such analysis science or not). The study summary suggests that they’ve found an interesting association, but we would need to find some kind of natural experiment or a statistical instrument to get at causality.

    Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the relative quantitative importance of different factors is not revealed by common sense but might be very important for making private and public policy. If it turned out that sexy music were ten times as important for promiscuity as peer group influence or education level, parents and teachers would want to focus their efforts much more on music-listening habits and less on other issues. (The article actually makes a claim of this sort.) So I think scoffing at this kind of study is unjustified.

    In any case, common sense, for good or ill, is always hostage to the “science” of the culture in which it sits. Worrying about witchcraft is common sense, today, in various places. It’s common sense to most of us that the earth is round, but most of us are educated to that belief. The inherent racial superiority of Europeans was common sense for a while.

    Of course, the educational process doesn’t always take–lots of people think heavier objects fall faster because they’re harder to pick up, essentially Aristotle’s common sense. Poll data usually show that most Americans think wage and price controls would be a dandy idea, and protectionism usually polls well, too.

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