Book review

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences by Steven Goldberg: Part I

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences

by Steven Goldberg

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences

Recommendation: Buy one copy for yourself, another for mother.

If Sally is over six feet tall and Bill is over six feet tall, too, are Sally and Bill over six feet tall? What if you had a room full of Sallys, each at least six feet, and in that room are also a gaggle of Bills, all over six feet. Would it be true that each person in that room is at least six feet tall?

Men, on average, are taller than women. It is certainly true that some women are taller than some men, but in any collection of “the tallest” most of those collected will be men and few will be women. Thus, if we as a society began rewarding tallness monetarily, more money would go to men than to women. Suppose this is true: tall people receive generous and regular payouts from the government. If, in this utopia, we were to collect data on the socioeconomic status of men and women we would find that men have higher status than women on average, simply because men are, on average, taller. But could we say that it is society that is making men taller? How about our room full of Sallys and Bills? Aren’t they all, on average, in the same high socioeconomic category because they are all tall?

These are not difficult questions, which is why it is amazing that if you change “extreme height” to “extreme mathematical ability” or “extreme intelligence” some people are unable to answer them correctly. Steven Goldberg tells us how come trained, academic sociologists can’t—and more importantly, don’t want to—give proper answers. (I just love these height analogies and am extremely grateful to Goldberg for them.)

MANDATORY CAVEAT There is no way that we can do justice to all of Goldberg’s arguments, nor can we do more than sketch a certain few: each of Goldberg’s chapters deserves its own essay. Therefore, and especially if you find yourself becoming internet-angry over a topic, I plead that you first read what Goldberg has to say before giving vent to your flummoxation. An essay of his on race is here; and one on feminism in science is here; but read the book!

That these topics are controversial was made clear to me as I rode in on the train this morning, holding Goldberg’s book. A fat, closely cropped, glasses wearing, well-dressed woman of about 40 sat in front of me and glared at the book’s cover for a full minute, then gave me the stink eye until I acknowledged her glance with a smile (which she did not return). She then cupped her hand around an elderly woman’s ear (whom I took to be her mother) and whispered who-knows-what. All I managed to hear, when they detrained at Grand Central, was “That man…” in an unforgiving tone. I imagine that Goldberg has received far, far worse castigation, judging from this quote:

The intrusion of ideology into the social sciences is so extensive that one who simply describes it sounds paranoid. The logical and evidential inadequacy of most feminist works is so great that anyone who has not read these words would think that I must be misrepresenting them. While the hard sciences are to a great extent immunized against this sort of sloppy thought, sociology has deteriorated into something not much more than rationalization for what people want to believe. Truth is declared to be nothing more than opinion invoked for political purposes and is assessed in terms of its imagined social consequences and its ability to soothe anxiety.

Goldberg was (or is; the department’s web site still lists him as) Chair of Sociology of City College in New York. He has the honor of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the author whose work was most often rejected before being published. That work was The Inevitability of Patriarchy—a book substantially updated (and renamed Why Men Rule) to answer its many criticisms. He is a man that is hated most strongly by those on the Left (oddly, his natural allies), but nearly as strongly as those on the far Right, but your author is in love with him, and you will be, too, after reading him. He is one of the most brilliant statisticians of the first kind (data collection and explication) that I have ever come across.

Empiricism suffuses his arguments. After Hume, Goldberg never tires of stressing “you can’t derive an ought from an is”, that is, you can’t say what should be from what is. A sociologist’s job is to say what is, not what should be. And sociologists certainly should never, ever say what is not because a lie is more pleasant than the truth, or because a lie will help usher in a “better world.”

Because of his philosophy, Goldberg has little truck with the Right, whose members often begin arguments openly admitting what ought to be because they want or desire the oughts. Thus, Goldberg cannot argue with somebody who says they favor capital punishment1 because they wish for retribution. But he can and does joust with those who say capital punishment should not be used because is it discriminatory or because it does not deter murder. Discrimination and deterrence are empirical matters and they can be settled by recourse to data and observation—what causes the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth is that the settlements are often opposite the desires of the Left.

Readers of this blog discovered this first-hand when we discussed the poor arguments used in favor of gay marriage (and here; Goldberg has nothing to say on this topic; the book was published before this was national news). Readers on the Left denied that the basis of their desire for gay marriage was just that, their desire, and they were frustrated to discover that no empirical findings led support to them (also, most were unhappy to even examine the topic). Readers on the Right were happy to point out the Left’s desires; however, it is also true that the Right’s arguments were also based solely on their desire to disallow gay marriage. What ought to be in this case cannot ultimately be found from what is.

A difficulty with empiricism as a philosophy is that nobody, not even Goldberg, can follow its tenets exactly. Goldberg hypothesizes an entrance exam to the University of Mississippi in 1950 that would have “automatically failed all blacks and it should have. The task of the test is to predict [collegiate success]. The despicability was the segregation of the university, not the test that would have correctly predicted the segregation’s success” (emphasis in original). We’ll talk later about what IQ, SAT tests and the like actually do, but for now we must realize that you cannot use the word “despicable” without having generated an ought from an is. Lest there be any confusion, I agree heartily with this ought, as most of us do.

But this is a mere quibble. Except for his take on Bob Dylan’s music (yes, really), and an interregnum on the OJ Simpson murder case (which I purposely avoided knowledge of), I find I have absolutely no disagreement with any of Goldberg’s findings or conclusions. We’ll explore these, and come back to Sally and Bill, next time.


1Capitol punishment being what is happening now at various Town Hall meetings discussing health care.

Categories: Book review, Culture

15 replies »

  1. Quite a shift from the previous three installments? I read Goldberg’s essay on Feminist Science, and I find it unremarkable in some ways, because I suppose I have become numb to this sort of thinking on campus–and also to its acquiesence among faculty with better sense. The remarkable thing about Goldberg is that he is willing to put his thoughts into print. This brings up several questions.

    First, a person who would speak in public as Goldberg does would be labelled by practically everyone on my campus as “right-wing” probably worse. Now you, Briggs, say Goldberg’s natural allies would be found on the Left; and my guess is that Goldberg himself (I know nothing of the man) finds the Right repulsive. And you also think the Right should dislike Goldberg’s ideas because they are obsessed with the “ought” rather than “what is.” So, where does a person like Goldberg fit on one of these linear scales (liberal->conservative; left->right; Democrat->Republican)? How would you place him, and where do you think he might place himself? By the way, I do not think there is any linear mapping of one of these scales to another, but that is talk for another time. I am interested in this because there is a political dimension to one’s views on soft vs. hard thinking, soft vs. hard science, and so forth; and “political labelling” that occurs on our campus seems to me utterly confused and wrong. I’ll allow you the out of answering that placement on a linear scale isn’t possible from Goldberg’s views on scholarship, but people do so all the time just the same.

    Second, you mentioned “empiricism as a philosophy” with such complicated tenets that no one can follow them exactly. Empiricism requires theory, though. I mean even beyond theory about measurement and analysis, it is difficult for empiricism to releave truth without having a theoretical reason (an explanation if you will) for what observations show. Is the philosophy of emiricism an idea that data themselves reveal truth?

    Finally, I fear that sloppy thinking is even beginning to infect engineering and the sciences. I feel it has something to do with people having been exposed to so much sloppy thinking through the media and the college of education, but this is pretty inconsistent with the observation that we have discarded a lot of superstitious thinking and made great progress over our distant ancestors. None the less perhaps we Americans reached an apex of rational thinking between 1900 and 1960 and we have been slipping back into prejudice and superstition ever since. Am I correct, or just among the geezers who always see a golden age somewhere in the past?

  2. Kevin,

    I would place Goldberg, as I think he would place himself, among the old-school New York Liberals, with all it amorphous meanings.

    I don’t want to talk here too much of empiricism, because it’s complicated and besides much of what Goldberg writes about. But here is a link which gives some basics.

    Irrationality in science, as in other areas, goes up and down. Some areas are waxing, others waning. If you are in a waning period, it is a tautology—therefore true—to say that things were better in the past.

  3. If both the left and the right despise Goldberg, and think he is wrong, that almost certainly means he is correct.

  4. Sir,
    Sorry to bother you but – – –
    Would you kindly limit yourself for the next few books to ones I can actually find in a
    If this is not too much trouble.

  5. Sorry to bother you again, but name another of these old school New York liberals so I can place myself. Daniel Patrick Moynihan?


  6. Bill,

    I suppose I should provide a link about where to buy. Temporarily, here is one, only 25 bucks. The book is readily available online.

    It’s good you should ask this. When this book originally came out, Goldberg went to his local Barnes and Noble and could not find any copies on the shelves. He asked the clerk how many copies had been sold. None, he said. Turns out that clever critics either stole the books or reshelved them, spines in, at various locations such as the Tropical Birds section, so that nobody could find them.




    I think we’ll find that your supposition is true.

  7. Interesting book.

    This reminds me of the controversial and highly publicized book The Bell Curve by social scientists R. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. From reading the book, one can detect they, at least their views, were on the Right. They explored the role of intelligence in U.S., wanted to talk about the group differences (empirical generalizations) and opined that Americans were in denial about it…

    BTW, my recollection is that we discussed the poor arguments used against gay marriage. ^_^

    I am looking forward to Part II. And Part III?

  8. Thanks for sharing this. I value your opinion and have just ordered his (and yours also) book

  9. Right, JH. Even our colleague Steven Feinberg joined in on this one. On the wrong side, I think. He too much wanted his “oughts”.

    mbabbitt. Thanks!

  10. ok Briggs. I’ve fallen for your nefarious plot.
    In order to get free shipping on Fads and Fallacies my order had to exceed $25.
    So I ordered your book too!

  11. Bill,

    I knew I could sucker you in eventually. But I don’t talk too much about this topic in the book (though it’s there, hidden), which I use for introductory classes in modern probability and statistics.


    Never seen it.

    a jones,

    Actually, there’s quite a lot of good sociology. Statistical demographics is pretty cool (to numbers geeks like myself) and nearly ideology free. The trick is how to find the good stuff. The problem is that it’s more likely to come across a work of ideology (right or left) and so dismiss the entire field. This is rational in the sense of saving time, but unfortunate.

  12. As an empiricist I must question your assumptions regarding the fat, 40-ish woman on the train. Are you sure it was the book you were reading that offended her?

    I am not a fat, 40-ish woman and so cannot say for sure, but I have evidence that suggests they are easily offended at almost anything and everything, indeed they can never be pleased no matter what you do, and they rarely read scholarly books.

  13. Mike D,

    Sure, I could be wrong about the woman on the train. But the way her eyes flitted from book to me and back, accompanied by her angry scowl, leads me to conclude that I am not wrong.

    It can’t be, for example, the way I was dressed: tan suit, conservative tie, pocket square. She, too, was well-dressed and, to me anyway, looked like a professional. All circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but that does not make it wrong.

  14. Alastair,

    You bet I have. Stove is my main man.

    So a search for his name on my site to see where I reference him.

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