Now that’s an interesting variation of the argumentum ad populum


People are crawling out of the woodwork to defend that bogus Boghossian hoax and they’re making some awesomely bad arguments to do so. Here’s one guy who makes a sweeping dismissal of all of the social sciences because few of their journals are highly ranked.

There is a curious lack of social science or humanities journals in the top 100. For instance, there is only one journal dedicated to psychology. If business and economics are counted, then a total of 12 of the top 100 journals cover the social sciences. (Put another way, there are more top 100 journals covering the biomedical subdisciplines of cell biology/microbiology/molecular biology than all the social sciences combined.) SJR considers Administrative Science Quarterly (which we classified as a business journal) to be a sociology journal, so it represents the one sociology journal in the top 100.

How many gender studies journals are in the top 100? Zero. In fact, there is only one gender studies journal in the top 1,000. Titled Gender and Society, it ranks at #933.

The takeaway from this analysis is clear: The hard sciences constitute the hottest fields and most prestigious journals. By comparison, social science journals are not nearly as prestigious. By definition, that means social science journals, as a whole, are not cited by prestigious journals.

There are many reasons for that. But one of them certainly is that the quality of the research just isn’t very good. That’s why penis hoax articles can get published.

That’s a stunningly stupid interpretation. How stupid? Well, he has helpfully organized the list of top 100 journals in descending order for us.

Apparently the quality of the research in mathematics just isn’t very good, using his reasoning.

Another problem is that a system that ranks journals by their ‘significance’, that is, how frequently cited they are by related journals, is going to be sensitive to numbers of participants within a discipline, so this metric is also going to be strongly skewed; popular disciplines will have more popular journals, regardless of their relative quality. So just to give you an idea of the numbers of people working within these general fields:

Number of scientists and engineers in the US: 6.2 million.

Number of psychologists in the US: 188,000.

Number of sociologists in the US: less than 3,000, which does seem awfully low; same source says the number of biochemists, just biochemists, is about 34,000.

So it is totally unsurprising that fewer social sciences journals are listed among the top 100 journals — there are fewer social scientists. It’s also meaningless to compare a broad category of “biomedical journals” with a sub-sub-discipline like “gender studies journals”. Everything about this is bad logic.

But then, it’s also unsurprising given the source. This is coming from the American Council on Science and Health, which is a reactionary pro-industry think-tank of dubious value.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader once said of ACSH,

A consumer group is an organization which advocates the interests of unrepresented consumers and must either maintain its own intellectual independence or be directly accountable to its membership. In contrast, ACSH is a consumer front organization for its business backers. It has seized the language and style of the existing consumer organizations, but its real purpose, you might say, is to glove the hand that feeds it.

Numerous ACSH publications (that do not disclose the corporations that have funded the organization) take positions attacking public concerns about various corporate products and practices, such as genetically modified foods (GMOs), pesticides, herbicides, and more, and have sought to downplay concerns raised by scientists and consumers. However, the tobacco industry has never been an ACSH client, and Whelan has very cleverly used her anti-tobacco stance to gain some credibility among health professionals and some activist groups. All of the tobacco connections were conducted by her partner, Fred Stare.

Some of the products ACSH has defended over the years include DDT, asbestos, and Agent Orange, as well as common pesticides. ACSH has often called environmentalists and consumer actvists “terrorists,” arguing that their criticisms and concerns about potential health and environmental risks are threats to society.[2]

ACSH has been funded by big agri-businesses and trade groups like Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, and the American Beverage Association, among others.

It’s also a front for the Koch brothers.

I’m not going to reject a scholarly discipline because some conservative shill found a way to tag it with a small number; I’d have to admit that zebrafish developmental biology must be of lower quality because there are fewer publications on that specific subject than in, say, geology, which is such obvious nonsense the author should have noticed. But I am happy to follow the money to dismiss a source because it is funded entirely by industries that are trying to protect their bottom line with fake science that undermines honest work.

Comments

  1. emergence says

    So, a guy who works for a fake science organization that exists to prop up corporate interests is accusing social science of poor quality? You’d think someone like this would spontaneously combust from sheer projection.

    What the hell does an industry shill group care about social science anyway? I get why they attack environmental science. Are they just really attached to regressive social mores too?

    On a related note, it also pisses me off how they apparently think that environmental scientists and advocates are “terrorists” for… voicing concerns and campaigning to protect the environment? Anything that might hurt the bottom lines of these corporate shitballs is apparently a threat to society.

  2. gentrfam says

    Since I have commented extensively on his article at ACSH, I think I should pipe up to defend them in one regard. I don’t think Ralph Nader is a credible source for what is good science. The list of topics, for example, that SourceWatch take issue with ACSH defending include GMO’s and Dr. Oz.

    While I certainly take any source that blurbs their praise from the likes of John Stossel, they tend to be more right than wrong when taking on the anti-chemical, anti-GMO woo that emanates from some that SourceWatch quotes approvingly.

    This article, though, steps outside their areas of relative strength, though, what possible relation to food science or microbiology does this attempted takedown of gender studies have? And, the result is this a-scientific mess.

  3. militantagnostic says

    Number of scientists and engineers in the US: 6.2 million.

    This creates an overly large denominator since most of these are engineers without post-graduate degrees who are not scientists while the 3000 sociologists all have PHDs and I suspect this number only includes those who are actively publishing.

    It looks like the ACSH combats bad science in some areas in order to look credible while cast in doubt on good science that happens to be inconvenient for their funders.

  4. militantagnostic says

    gentfram @3

    they tend to be more right than wrong when taking on the anti-chemical, anti-GMO woo that emanates from some that SourceWatch quotes approvingly.

    If they are promoting AGW denialism or trying put concerns about particulates, lead, asbestos, VOCs etc in the same category as Doctor Oz then they are more wrong then right on things that count. I am not impressed by shooting pseudoscience fish in a barrel.

  5. says

    I have an idea of what it means to compare the rankings of journals within a field, but what does it even mean to compare rankings of journals between completely different fields?

    The OP takes the view that it’s simply related to how many people work in each field, but I’m not so sure. Rankings are related to citations per paper, so if there are fewer people in the field there are fewer citations, but there would also be fewer papers. Intuition suggests two sources of variation: a) the number of papers cited by a typical paper in the field, b) Flow of citations into and out of the field.

    Looking around, I found this paper on arxiv. Anyone want to read it?

  6. says

    On second thought, I think the OP is correct that it’s related to the size of the field. If 1% of the papers in each field are highly authoritative, then obviously bigger fields are going to produce more highly authoritative work, and thus needs more journals to publish them.

  7. specialffrog says

    All of these defenses of the hoax seem to only be defending the preconceptions of the hoaxers rather than atttempting to defend the claim that the hoax demonstrated anything meaningful about social sciences.

  8. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Not one linguistics journal there. Or testing, or psychometrics.

    Guess it’s time to rethink my career.

  9. says

    Indeed. There is a vast biomedical research enterprise, funded in part by the $32 billion NIH, plus AHRQ, and at least as much by private industry and philanthropy. If somebody started pumping $32 billion/year into gender studies, you’d see a lot more citations!

  10. gentrfam says

    “If they are promoting AGW,”

    I see, now, where ACSH, and this author in particular, seem to have a bug about minimizing the threat of global warming. An interesting topic for a microbiologist to spend his time on.

  11. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    Only 7 physics journals?
    *sigh*
    My studies were such a waste!

    Random question – how many fields are there that have relevant publications for them to be in the running to even be considered for this list?
    I can’t help but feel that it might actually be more than 100, even before we consider the fact that biomedical publications make up more than half of that list (and rightly so, I would argue) it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be a lot competing for positions. So how can anyone seriously present the argument that low representation in this list means anything at all?
    It staggers me that anyone who​ claims even the most basic skeptical ability can take this kind of weak argument seriously.

  12. emergence says

    This is sort of a general version of a type of question I’ve asked here a lot. I’m wondering how a student working on a degree in a particular field can gain enough knowledge of other fields of study to gain informed positions on them. If I’m a biology student, how can I become well informed about sociology, or geology, or economics?

  13. blf says

    If I’m a biology student, how can I become well informed about sociology, or geology, or economics?

    Library. Not restricted to biology students, or even to students.

  14. blf says

    What the hell does an industry shill group care about social science anyway?

    They are paid by the Kochroaches and Other Snarling Beasties, but that does not mean they are a perfect echo chamber, nor does it mean they don’t project their own fantasies. Consider them an attack dormouse not on a leash.

  15. aquaticus says

    The social sciences have always been the redheaded step child in the scientific community. The official unofficial pecking order is social scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians at the top.

    However, no one would argue that gender studies and issues are not important simply because scientific studies are few and far between, and then only found in journals with relatively fewer citations. You might as well judge the prestige of a journal by how many subscriptions it has, making Time or Newsweek the top scientific journals.

    And one final note . . . if you are desperate you can find some low rank journal with high page fees that will publish about anything. This goes for every single field in science. Good scholarship should be judged by the work, not how many popular a journal is.

  16. jrkrideau says

    If I’m a biology student, how can I become well informed about sociology, or geology, or economics?

    Grad club.Beer. Talk,

  17. jrkrideau says

    I once was doing some number-crunching for an economistI noticed that most citations had 6 – 10 items (papers) listed

    I come from Psychology where three or four citations would be more than enough.

    My first thought was citation inflation.

    My opinion has not changed though I am willing to suggest that the ‘authors’ did actually read the abstracts in most cases.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    emergence @ # 15: … how a student … in a particular field can gain enough knowledge of other fields of study to gain informed positions on them.

    As I understand it, answering that (for students and pros alike) was the original mission of Scientific American.

  19. lemurcatta says

    Re: #18, honestly, most social scientists aren’t really scientists at all if you define scientist as someone who dispassionately pursues natural truth through rigorous hypothesis testing.

  20. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @lemurcatta

    honestly, most social scientists aren’t really scientists at all if you define scientist as someone who dispassionately pursues natural truth through rigorous hypothesis testing.

    True. Given that social scientists pursue social phenomena, not natural ones, defining scientist that way would probably disqualify them from the title.

  21. lemurcatta says

    But one could also say social phenomena are part of the natural world. It all depends on how you approach the demarcation problem. I’ve always thought that the social sciences should just drop the “science” label, because it doesn’t necessarily lend them credibility- the social studies departments are valuable in their own right and don’t need to borrow the tag of science to make that so.

  22. sonderval says

    There also is a huge difference in the citation culture in different fields. Typical papers in Physics with 5-10 pages will have about 10-20 references, usually. In biology, the number is probably more like 60 or so.

  23. says

    A

    honestly, most social scientists aren’t really scientists at all if you define scientist as someone who dispassionately pursues natural truth through rigorous hypothesis testing.

    You know what’s really funny?
    It’s that you’re really demonstrating why you need social sciences.
    “Scientist” and “science” aren’t a god-given terms and definitions. They are, hold your breath, social constructs. Other languages don’t even split humanities and science into two different terms*.

    *English seems to be really good at this. And then, as we know from linguists, you go on and pretend that your particular split of a concept into two terms reflects some important truth about the subject.

    +++
    You know what those people remind me of? Kids. Mine, and other people’s. Probably every parent knows the drill. Your kid does something bad, like, say, make glass bubbles indoors. They get called out. They try to talk about how cool glass bubbles are or how their sister took their T-shirt without asking.
    Unlike kids, these people aren’t cute.

  24. Siobhan says

    @Giliell

    Your kid does something bad, like, say, make glass bubbles indoors.

    Are you saying you have a glassblower at home? o_O

  25. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @lemurcatta

    one could also say social phenomena are part of the natural world.

    In which case, one could say that pursuing truths of social phenomena is pursuit of natural truth. Except it would start getting messy when people start arguing that this or that natural truth implies that social phenomena are set in stone, and cannot and should not be changed.
    For what it’s worth, we could also say that ant nests, cities, beaver dams, and CERN are all part of the natural world, but at a certain point, it does become useful to distinguish between the products of nature, and the products of certain self aware products of nature.

    I’ve always thought that the social sciences should just drop the “science” label, because it doesn’t necessarily lend them credibility

    True, but it doesn’t necessarily lend physicists or biologists credibility either. It’s the work they do, not the linguistic lab coats that gives them credibility.

    the social studies departments are valuable in their own right and don’t need to borrow the tag of science to make that so.

    True, and physics and biology departments are also valuable in their own right, and don’t need the tag of science to make that so either.

  26. imback says

    Here’s my take on the academic hierarchy. Sociology is just a branch of psychology, which is just a branch of biology, which is just a branch of chemistry, which is just a branch of physics, which is just a branch of mathematics, which is just a branch of logic, which is just a branch of philosophy, which is just a branch of literature, which is just a branch of humanities, which is just a branch of sociology.

  27. Michael says

    There is also a difference in the role of articles in advancement and tenure. In some disciplines it’s the book that counts, not amassing a huge number of articles. (And when you do publish an article it tends to be a lot longer than anything published in a science journal or even an economics journal). Counting citations is also a lot less important in my field than it is in the sciences, when I worked in a US university in a history department nobody ever asked me about my citation score.

  28. says

    The underlying assumption of the subject article is just fascinating: That cutting-edge research appears in journal articles, uniformly and uniquely, across all fields.

    Riiiiiiiiiiiiight. That the article itself isn’t in a journal is an amusing side note.

    Ask a fourth- or fifth-year assistant professor over in the English or Comparative Literature or History department what his tenure capstone piece is, and it’ll be “a book,” or at minimum “a significant monograph of at least 120 pages or so.” If you ask the same of a third-year law professor, it will be a “journal article” (and, BTW, it’s likely to have more than 5-10 citations per paragraph… because citations to what others have previously said are what passes for original research in law, and that’s perhaps why there isn’t even a category for law journals in that goofy ranking system).

    The less said about evaluating interdisciplinary work this way, the better.* I’ve found — to a reasonable degree of confidence — that radically interdisciplinary work just can’t pull it off in a journal article. Not even (or perhaps especially) in a bloated 65-page law journal article with 411 footnotes, each of which contains a mean of nearly 4 citations, and those citations are mostly to either dead people or life-tenured judges.** I don’t have the expertise or current knowledge to do the same sort of comparison between, say, economics and ecology… but neither have I seen substantial evidence to the contrary (Exhibit A: The since-repudiated-for-good-reason “Tragedy of the Commons” piece).

    * Actually, that’s generally true: Watching lawyers try to write about scientific evidence, and scientists try to write about burdens of proof and how “scientific certainty” relates to “reasonable doubt” based on the equivalent of a single laboratory run under uncontrolled conditions, is excrutiating… and that’s just a particularly obvious example.

    ** This is not a hypothetical example. This was an article from a named-chair professor that I participated in publishing, many years ago. Its own citation count is amusingly — and somewhat gratifyingly — low.

  29. emergence says

    One other thing; Boghossian is a philosopher. Among certain people, philosophy is just as badly maligned as social science. You’d think that having their field accused of being useless navel gazing would give philosophers some empathy for sociologists, but apparently not.

  30. gentrfam says

    Ha! Alex deleted all my comments. Apparently, he was triggered by the word “ass.” I called his argument “half-assed,” then, later, on twitter, I asked if he was trying the Nassim Taleb method of arguing – assholery instead of reason. Then, amazingingly, my third “strike,” was noting my earlier retraction and amendment that his argument mag have been “whole-assed.”

    His, and ACSH’s (through their current president Hank Campbell), response to this criticism is solely to note that SourceWatch is a biased source. They are, apparently, incapable of understanding the concept of independant arguments.

  31. shockna says

    Looking at that list, I see only one or two major Astronomy journals (Annual Review of Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Nature Physics, the latter of which has a questionable reputation among many astronomers).

    I suppose he’ll say that astrophysics is also a discipline that produces mostly garbage research now, since it barely rates better than gender studies in the top 100?

    ….No? I wonder why. Certainly no bias involved. No, he’s a Rational Skeptic™. Couldn’t be.

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