Sociologist Claude Fischer will soon begin a new column in the Boston Review that “will take on the fashionable ideas about American social life reported in the mainstream media and expose them to scientific scrutiny.” Here is why Fischer says the public needs the sociological perspective applied to popular debates:
DJ: The “culture of poverty” debate has been reignited recently by Charles Murray, whose cultural analysis, you write, is “not serious.” He is one among many “thought leaders” to gain a wide audience for unserious views. How much blame do you think academic experts bear for ceding the public sphere to these modern-day sophists?
CF: “Sophist” (defined—I had to look it up—as one skilled in devious argumentation) is not quite the term I would use. While Murray’s particular argument about the origins of white, working-class culture cannot be taken seriously, much of what he has argued, in The Bell Curve, for example, is serious, even if, as colleagues and I have argued (in Inequality by Design), it is wrong. On the broader point: Yes, mainstream social scientists have been under-represented in public debates (not economists, however; they seem omnipresent). For many years, I have pressed my colleagues to tell more of what we know to the wider public. In the early 2000s, I was the founding editor of Contexts, a magazine of the American Sociological Association for general readers, a sort of poor man’s Social Scientific American. For various reasons, it did not find a place on airport magazine racks and, although it thrives (see contexts.org), the magazine mostly reaches sociologists and our students. Among the reasons we sociologists have been largely absent in the public dialogue include chronically abysmal writing, too-frequent PC-ness, and not trying enough. But the failure is also on the media’s side—for example, the taste for the sensational (see above), a short attention span, and a desperation for content. (In the latter regard, social science findings are rarely discovered by journalists; they are usually delivered by publicists and often large p.r. campaigns—see Murray, above.) Both sides share some responsibility for the vacuum.
DJ: Do you think American ignorance of sociological facts is akin to our ignorance of scientific facts, or is there something more to the story?
CF: Of course, most Americans are too busy to recall much of the science—or the history, for that matter—that they learned in school (many were too busy during school to learn it, too). While we academics put a weirdly high value on knowing bookish facts, social scientific knowledge is consequential for both society and individuals—say, understanding how schools’ organizational structures might affect learning. Social science in particular has some properties that make public awareness especially difficult. For one, people generally think they already know all that stuff. After all, they live in society; they don’t need to be told about it by some egghead. Such confidence, by the way, is one reason why people often respond to a piece of social science research by saying it is obvious—after hearing what the finding is. (Pick one: money makes people happier; money doesn’t make people happier. Either way the research comes out, many will say the result is obvious. Duncan Watts also discusses this phenomenon in his new book, Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer.) Second, people tend to believe comfortable facts. This is true in the natural sciences, too. (My Berkeley colleague, Robb Willer, has found that people are more likely to dismiss global warming as real if they are first told that it would cost a lot to mitigate it.) This shaping of empirical belief is multiplied in the social sciences. For example, the well-off are especially likely to believe that good fortune has nothing to do with success; it is all the result of talent and effort.
I’m looking forward to a good defense of sociology as well as insights into American life and culture.