Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Counter-What? Not Very Intuitive

This article discusses the importance of doing counter-intuitive work in the social sciences:
We love our counterintuitive findings. And for fields such as psychology, they’re almost a necessity. If new conclusions already gel with our beliefs, goes the common refrain, why was precious taxpayer money ever wasted on the study in the first place? (I find the prospect of a society populated by commenters on most social science articles chilling.) Never mind that because our beliefs are not immune to prevailing worldviews, what we find intuitive has almost certainly been shaped by the past observations of—you guessed it—social scientists. And never mind that despite the ease with which new findings morph into old news, many established psychological phenomena still aren’t intuitive.
The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.
Excellent points.  The pressure to be counter-intuitive can be counter-productive, as one twists their work to present it as "surprising... ta da!"  Looking back, I have found myself socialized into thinking being counter-intuitive is the uber-thing.  My first book found that ethnic ties drove foreign policy towards ethnic conflict elsewhere.  Not exactly surprising.  Yet that was not the conventional wisdom back in the day.  Nay, the conventional wisdom was that countries did not support secessionist movements elsewhere if they faced such folks at home.  People still buy that crap, which means they didn't buy my book.

My second book with the non-terrorist Bill Ayres was far more counter-intuitive: nationalists might not engage in efforts to bring back lost kin if they are sufficiently xenophobic.  That is nationalists may hate more than they love, leading them to be less enthused about irredentism.

My third book, with David Auerswald (see here for a slice of our argument), does not really try as hard to say that it is counter-intuitive.  It argues that domestic political institutions shape how countries manage their participation in multilateral military operations (in Afghanistan and Libya), more so than relative threat, public opinion or strategic culture.  Is this counter-intuitive?  Depends on what you think is intuitive.

Aye, there's the rub.  The convention for job talks and other presentations is to present a conventional wisdom, with or without straw-people, and frame one's argument as being counter-intuitive.  If one can sell this, then woo hoo!  But as the author of the piece cited above points out, previous science (or social science) establishes what is essentially the intuition.  The current intuition would be that bureaucracies matter more than the national interest, that collective action is difficult and generally under-provided, that Americans do not care too much about specific foreign policies but have pretty stable preferences, that they will rally around the flag albeit relatively briefly when force is used, that security dilemmas cause arms races, and so on. 

This gets to the heart of the matter--we are in the business of persuasion.  Our job is to persuade the listener/reader that our argument is interesting, that it is logical, that it is original (here is where the counter-intuitive thing really lives), that the research is well-designed and executed, and that the findings and conclusions are important/interesting.  So, in many cases, the person who is most persuasive/best at marketing their ideas will prevail.  That may not be the smartest person, that may not be the one with the most exhaustive or innovative research.  However, if one does everything right, then the work will be easier to market and persuasion will be easier.  If one does everything wrong (not a very interesting question, lousy sense of where it fits, poor research design, executed poorly), marketing is less likely to work (but has been known to happen).

Of course, the challenge now is whether this post was at all counter-intuitive.  I think it would be counter-intuitive of me to say "yes"!

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