Why Does Social Science Not Bite?

Collage of images related to COVID in public spaces

David Canter considers why the social sciences failed to influence behavior in order to stop the spread of COVID-19

The remarkably rapid development of a handful of vaccines that enhance the immune system’s ability to fight COVID-19 is an impressive illustration of the power of science when combined with a well-funded supporting technology. That success puts to shame the very limited influence of social scientists, especially social psychologists, on government policies and behavioral modifications, so crucial for controlling the spread of the pandemic. There does not appear to have been any clear and detailed influence, or social science technology, that the government could harness to stimulate appropriate actions by the public. In interviews with the media social scientists just said government should give clear messages and not undermine the importance of those messages by allowing significant figures to ignore the guidelines. These were points that informed journalists could and did make. What did social science add?

Where were the biting examples of how human activities are shaped and influenced? Who offered headline-grabbing illustrations that would make people sit up and listen, at home? What significant research could be drawn on that would guide policy and practice? The virologists had been preparing for a new virus for some years, so were already ahead of the game when they had to start creating a new vaccine. What preparations had social psychologists, sociologists or anthropologists for the inevitable emergence of a new pandemic?

I would like to suggest that part of the reason why the social sciences (with possible exception of economics) are so impotent is because they typically hold on to a limited view of science and how it has its impact. I see my own discipline of psychology as probably the worst offender in this regard. I was schooled in psychology at the University of Liverpool in what was then known as ‘Experimental Psychology.’ There was a declared ideology that psychology was a science like any ‘hard science,’ notably physics, in which controlled experimentation was the only sure basis for testing hypotheses. This was claimed to allow causal mechanisms to be identified, thereby developing theories from carefully argued postulates. Although some degree of survey research and the rather metaphorically named ‘field’ experiments were acceptable, they were all regarded as less ‘scientific’ than a double-blind, laboratory-controlled experiment. Case studies were dismissed as merely ‘anecdotal,’ although possibly of use in generating hypotheses. Reviewers of research proposals were even known to dismiss anything that included questionnaire surveys.


I would like to suggest that part of the reason why the social sciences (with possible exception of economics) are so impotent is because they typically hold on to a limited view of science and how it has its impact.


However, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the frequency of cases has been monitored in various ways. News announcements have assumed the population at large can make sense of graphs showing the prevalence of illness, hospitalizations and deaths, with the metaphor of ‘waves,’ first, second and beyond, being used to interpret what are in fact great oversimplifications of complex processes. So, although double-blind controlled trials were crucial in demonstrating the efficacy of the vaccines, the communication with the public and, presumably, the guidance to policy makers came from direct descriptions of what was happening. Some comparisons of different interventions in different countries were considered. But a constant refrain from experts and politicians was that comparisons were not feasible because each country’s situation was so different. In effect, this makes the study of changes in frequencies into ongoing case studies in which the processes of change are inferred.

Importantly, and interestingly, when some interventions did not seem to have the same impact as they had had previously, the inference was made that the virus must have changed. The current outstanding capability of rapidly checking the virus’ DNA enabled that hypothesis to be tested and supported.

But a review of the rapidly emerging publications from social scientists relating to COVID-19 shows how behind the curve they are metaphorically and literally. Studies focus almost entirely on the consequences of COVID-19, typically on mental health, or encouragement for social scientists to do something relevant. Of course, elaborating the social and psychological consequences of the pandemic and the ways that governments have tried to deal with it has real merit. Indeed, in the current New Year’s Honours the value of drawing attention to such consequences is recognized by a professor of psychiatry, Wendy Burn, being made a CBE, which was quoted as being “for predicting the mental health impact of the pandemic.” But I see no honours for social psychologists, or social scientists for helping to manage the pandemic?

The U.K. Academy of Social Sciences has a declared mission to ‘make the case for’ the social sciences. The intention is to raise an awareness of the significance of the social sciences for policy and practice, with a consequent increasing support for the social sciences politically and financially. There is therefore the crucial question of what can be learnt from dealing with the challenge of COVID-19 that would have made the case more substantially? I’ve always felt that if you have to ‘make the case’ the cause is already lost. It smacks of ‘protesting too much.’ There has to be something more fundamentally awry that there is seen to be a need to ‘make the case.’

Of course, it has to be admitted that policy makers and politicians do not follow the guidelines from the medical and scientific experts. Those with the power to make the crucial decisions have to weigh a range of possibilities and probable consequences. ‘The Science,’ as British politicians are keen to refer to the range of intricate medical and scientific findings, is only one part of their consideration. As is also now legend, in the U.S., the Supreme Commander denied that The Virus should be taken seriously, as he’s done for climate change and other very obvious phenomena, notably an election loss.

Against this background how can the much vaguer, more disputed, and – let’s face it – more poorly funded, social sciences be expected to have any influence? I would like to suggest that one answer to this is for the engagement with a much richer understanding of what science is and how it can be understood.

Cover of just-so stories colection

This means avoiding scientism. That is the quasi-religious following of rituals in the name of science rather than clear-sighted application of appropriate scientific methods. In psychology a powerful illustration of this is the prevalence of ‘evolutionary’ explanations of behavior. These parodies of Kipling’s ‘just-so’ stories seek to frame every aspect of human propensities in pseudo-Darwinian accounts of the likely evolutionary benefits of those aspects of being human. These explanations, whether it be of kindness, rape, arson, or music, or a host of other features of people, are claimed as having roots in the distant past of early hominids. These speculations are given the status of scientific theories without any possibility of demonstrating their validity, or even an elementary indication of some genetic support for these claims. Changes in how we deal with and experience the world derive from social and cultural processes that cannot be reduced to coping with the challenges of surviving on the Serengeti.

There are many other examples of social science accounts that are selected to look scientific rather than doing any actual scientific work. They can be dressing up everyday understanding in opaque terminology, or putting faith in one-off studies that have never been replicated. Or fully understood. The challenge is to find ways of communicating findings and their implications which are not necessarily obvious. This is a challenge, in part, because everyone has to make some sort of sense of their interactions with others. How can another person claim some special insight that goes against what non-specialists may take for granted?

I learnt about this challenge the hard way when attempting to provide consultancy to organizations that wish to take action on the basis of my advice. I found that as much as they admired statistics and some background number crunching, what caused them to take notice of what I was advocating was a well-presented case-study illustrating the process. For example, no matter how sophisticated the model I developed of human actions when caught in a building on fire, backed by examination of many incidents, what made policy makers take notice was a graphic account of one particular event that illustrated the model. Even better if they could relate that directly to their own experience.

Journalists are very aware of this phenomenon. When the new COVID-19 vaccinations were set in motion, the newspaper reports did not give figures of how many people where being jabbed or the research results that had given rise to this breakthrough. They had a photograph of the first person to be vaccinated.


The one significant example of social science analyses revealing processes previously undervalued has been the demonstration that the prevalence of the disease mapped directly onto social deprivation. This crucially challenged the initial reductionist, habitual reaction, to claim that the prevalence in some minority communities somehow had a genetic origin.


Of course, the argument by the illustration of a particular case has the risk that the case is not typical. In these circumstance spurious arguments can be supported by inappropriate or irrelevant cases. I’ve found this when explaining to police investigators that the majority of burglars do not travel far from their homes. I know this to be the case from many statistical studies. But this is challenged by a police officer who cites an offender he knew of, who travelled great distances to commit his crimes. This illustrates that case studies on their own can never provide all the evidence to support an argument, but they can be a crucial part of that evidence, essential in getting across the message that the statistics reveal.

It is curious that in the various publications the Academy of Social Sciences has published under the banner of ‘making the case for the social sciences,’ I have not come across one that deals with consumer research. Is that sullied because of its commercial context? Yet there is a lot to learn about communicating research results from social science advice that gives rise to advertising. The results of the research are illustrated by examples. I’ve yet to see a carefully argued example, based on actual cases, of what people should do to reduce the spread of The Virus. News reports have plenty of accounts of particularly tragic cases, but where is the social science back up to how that tragedy occurred?

The one significant example of social science analyses revealing processes previously undervalued has been the demonstration that the prevalence of the disease mapped directly onto social deprivation. This crucially challenged the initial reductionist, habitual reaction, to claim that the prevalence in some minority communities somehow had a genetic origin. This awareness, was in accord with many studies of the relationships between deprivation and health. These are not neatly controlled experimental studies, but explorations of what is happening and making as much sense as possible of what is causing them. It is a battle to get such perspectives taken seriously. The natural and biological sciences are so powerful in their simple messages and obvious successes that the noise they make tends to mask the profound insights of those who study people and culture rather than things and organisms. But as The Virus is teaching us understanding human beings and society is too important to be hidden in incomprehensible academic articles.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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