Sunday, June 30, 2013

The uses of social science; hemming the emperor's new robes

Today's "analysis" in the New York Times about the demise of "car culture" makes great use of several sociologists and their research.

Perhaps Stephen Harper was premature in his denigration of the dismal non-science. While it didn't take long for one of his back-bench flunkys to clarify what every patriotic Canadian already suspected; the root cause of terrorism is terrorists, perhaps the NYT's deference to sociology will lead him to reconsider.

After all, he could benefit mightily from the work of sociologists who would be thrilled to defend the status quo that so benefits the constituency he represents.

The work of Mimi Sheller and Michael Sivak is the case in point. While it is readily evident to even the most stunned observer that the decline in car ownership in working class America is the result of the steady erosion of working class incomes over the past forty years, Sivak and Sheller are rightfully, as social scientists, not prepared to settle for the obvious.

Sivak observes correctly that the decline in car ownership preceded the 2008 recession. Indeed! That's because the decline in working class incomes preceded the 2008 recession by a good quarter century.

But instead of embracing the obvious, he ventures into all manner of speculation that will require, as all social science worth it's funding must, more research.

Sheller too has some great theories that will require more research and more funding. Young folks today are so internet savvy that they don't need cars. All their friends are on Facebook and they can telecommute to their jobs via their smartphones!

Who the hell needs a car?

Frankly, to dress up the impoverishment of workers over recent decades as a manifestation of environmental consciousness or technological change is nothing less than intellectual fraud.

Why don't these social scientists look into the distribution of carlessness by household income?

Has the reduction in automobile ownership affected all income groups equally, or has the upper quartile been more or less exempt from this "long-term cultural shift?"

Since that upper quartile tends to be better educated, more engaged in environmental issues, and more likely to be early adapters of technology, they should be leading the trend away from the automobile.

I have a hunch that's not the case.

I'm waiting for the social scientists to do some social science and find the answer.

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