Congress, the NSF, and Social Science Research

For the past few weeks I’ve been following the Monkey Cage blog as it has followed the vote by the House of Representatives to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding Political Science research.   These days I tend to roll my eyes and feel helpless when Congress takes silly positions for political reasons (though I enjoy the irony of the House deciding that its own activity isn’t worthy of study).  But today an op-ed appeared in the Washington Post, which I expect to be more sensible/less political than Congress, arguing that the NSF should defund research not only politics but all social science, on the grounds that it isn’t possible to design rigorous controlled experiments in the social sciences or draw objective conclusions from the results.  While I suppose I might benefit from the redirection of that money towards “hard” science like CS, I don’t want to let such a blatantly false claim stand unchallenged (Monkey Care also has a nice rebuttal).    Especially since, if they do, an renewal of the congressional assault on research in human computer interaction is surely around the corner.

So, to falsify the claim, I’ll just mention two fine examples of careful controlled studies in social science of computer supported cooperative work.  Matthew Sagalnik and Duncan Watts did some a great controlled experiment showing how the popularity of music is substantially “self fulfilling”—music that is initially highly ranked is ultimately highly ranked by the whole community, even if the initial rankings are random.  At the conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, a source of plenty of such studies, Farzan, Pal, Kraut and Konstan used a controlled experiment to assess the impact of different kinds of socialization strategies on the socializiation of new entrants to a technical support forum.

These are just two examples of many; even one would serve to falsify the claims made in the Post’s op-ed.  I wonder if the author will be scientific/objective enough to retract his piece given the new data?

Oh well.  I suppose we should all write our congressmen before this goes any further.

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