christakis’ query

Last year, Nicholas Christakis argued that the social sciences were stuck. Rather that fully embrace the massive tidal wave of theory and data from the biological and physical sciences, the social sciences are content to just redo the same analysis over and over. Christakis’ used the example of racial bias. How many social scientists would be truly shocked to find that people have racial biases? If we already know that (and we do, by the way), then why not move on to new problems?

Christakis’ was recently covered in the media for his views and for attending a conference that tries to push this idea. To further promote this view, I would like to introduce Christakis’ Query, which every researcher should ask:

Think about the major question that you are working on and what you think the answer is. Estimate the confidence in your answer. If you already know the answer with more than 50% confidence, then why are you working on it? Why not move on?

Try it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2015 at 12:02 am

11 Responses

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  1. So he’s advocating 50% confidence intervals?



    January 27, 2015 at 12:09 am

  2. “If you already know the answer with more than 50% confidence, then why are you working on it? Why not move on?”

    Because everyone else thinks you’re wrong?


    Benjamin Geer

    January 27, 2015 at 11:10 pm

  3. What do people think of using resources like Amazon Turk for behavioral experiments?



    January 28, 2015 at 5:06 am

  4. We may know the direction of the association but not the magnitude. Sometimes a study done well can also have more policy influence than a study with more limitations. Especially in areas with clear, direct real world impact, like health services research. Does this query apply equally to applied social sciences as with more theoretically oriented work??


    Sean McClellan

    January 28, 2015 at 6:12 am

  5. We can always understand mechanisms more clearly than we currently do. We know a lot of stuff on a surface level, but we often have a very poor understanding of the internal workings of our arguments. Christakis’s research is actually a good example of that.


    brayden king

    January 28, 2015 at 2:16 pm

  6. The funniest/worst part of his argument is that one of his primary examples–racial bias–is cleary and demonstrably false. Most Americans do not agree/accept that most people are racially biased. Or, if they do, they say it’s anti-white bias.

    Nevermind that he then talks about “behavioral economics” as changing economics radically, thus disproving his claim that the social sciences are not shifting. Or is it that he bemoans the lack of name-changing/new discipline subfields? Nevermind that some of the best “behavioral economics” I’ve read is about…racial biases. but I thought we already knew everything there!

    Unsurprisingly, the new departments he says we need are all fields he personally studies. And in my department, students do research–they run regressions on actual survey data and even do ethnographic work. but they’re not lab experiments, so I guess that doesn’t count?

    Finally, as per his query, a recent example. A co-author and I were very confident we’d find result X in the data, both due to theoretical knowledge and previous experience. Well more than 50% bet we’d reach that conclusion. Well, we didn’t. If we had used his query, we’d never have known that result X actually is wrong and it’s more complicated (and hopefully, interesting to reviewers!) than we thought.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 28, 2015 at 3:24 pm

  7. “Most Americans do not agree/accept that most people are racially biased”

    That doesnt negate his argument. It’s not what ‘most Americans believe’, but what the research says (ie X amount of people dont believe in evolution, doesnt mean the research shouldnt accept it as resolved and move on.)



    January 28, 2015 at 4:25 pm

  8. @ronanfitz, while I think your interpretation of what he meant to say is a much better argument, here’s the quote from his article: “But everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class.” He explicitly says “everyone” not “every scholar of X.” Of course, were he to do that, he’d run into the problem that scholars of racial bias aren’t just studying whether or not people are biased, but the causes, consequences, and associations that go along with those biases.



    January 28, 2015 at 4:42 pm

  9. Krippendorf’s law: on average, other scholars’ questions are less interesting to us, and the answers to them more obvious, than our own. That’s the nature of a business where we get to choose what questions we ask and spend time answering, and where people who aren’t interested in the questions they ask typically select out or are selected out of the business (or at least out of active research).

    Case in point: “do people who are tied in a social network have more similar health attributes and behaviors than you’d expect from chance alone?” Even before Christakis/Fowler came along, how many sociologists would have said there was a less than a 50% chance that the answer to this question was, “yes”?

    Or, “are people happier in their social media communications on holidays, weekends, and in the morning after they’ve had their coffee?”

    I’m no more immune to “Krippendorf’s law” than anyone else, so I’m not judging the value of research into these questions as opposed to, say, the question of whether there is still racial bias. I’d merely point out that both of these examples have been studied using the types of data and analyses, and in the types of interdisciplinary collaborations, that Christakis favors, not in “business as usual” departments with “business as usual” data sets.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 28, 2015 at 5:22 pm

  10. Sometimes we should keep asking the same questions because the answers change. At least this is true in some social sciences.

    As to the assertion that behavioral economics has radically changed economics, I must assert that behavioral economics is rounding error in the field.

    And while people who aren’t paying attention may assert that monopoly power is bad for markets, those of us who work in the field believe (as do all of the national and supranational competition bureaus) that the exercise of monopoly power is harmful, not the existence of monopoly position.



    January 28, 2015 at 10:31 pm

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