Systemic Misunderstanding [Learn Social Science]

Maybe it’s because I’m trying to polish up my masters (fingers crossed), or maybe it’s because I’m just not that bitter today, but I’m going to talk about social science again. If you’ve read any of my articles, I tend to harp on the importance of science. We need it to tell our economy from a hole in the ground. Unfortunately science is also complicated and for whatever reason western civilization just doesn’t teach it very well. At present somewhere around 23% of Americans are considered scientifically literate.

Wait you may say! Hold the phone. Who defines scientific literacy and how is it determined? Maybe Dr. Lab Coat from Impressive University is trying to hold the American public to an unfair standard, you might say. Well according to science blogs, science journals, and the New York Times there are common-sense questions that the public just can’t get right. Here are a few of the questions we have trouble with and how we measured up, according to a survey from the California Academy of Sciences.

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.*
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

You could also take a whack at Pew’s Science Knowledge Quiz and rate yourself against the rest of America. Pew randomly sampled about 1000 people and found that 45% of respondents got less than eight questions correct. Only 10% got all 12.

This Buddy Holly looking stud cracked an egg of knowledge all over the social sciences

We suck at science in a world where we elect people to make decisions about stem cells, nuclear waste, energy production, climate change, etc. At present there are nine people in Congress, out of 435, with a scientific background, although there are about 24 people with medical training. Tickle me concerned that 47% of American don’t know it takes the Earth a year to travel around the sun. You may or may not believe that there is a scientific explanation for the emergence of life (both historically and en utero), but we can all agree that whatever solution we chose will come from a list of scientific ones.

So this week I’ma talk about one of the most important theoretical terms in social research. Now and then social scientists will be talking about something, and they will add the qualifier “systemic” to whatever they are trying to describe. Systemic inequality. Systemic patterns of abuse. Systemic discrimination. It’s a loaded adjective. You may hear it with other adjectives like “institutional” or “macro-level. These words sound fancy, intellectual, and just  a bit pretentious. So what does it mean?

At it’s core, a systemic problem that occurs within greater institutions in a society. The best way to explain it is to borrow a few words from C. Wright Mills. Mills wrote, arguably, one of the most famous essays in sociology when he penned The Promise. The work is a continuation of his argument about how people cannot properly understand their own lives without considering the context of history and a society’s greater mechanism. Within the essay, Mills identified personal troubles and public issues. A personal trouble occurs at the individual level and between that individual and his or her close relations. A public issue transcends the local and deals with the way we organize large numbers of people and resources.

In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.

C. Wright Mills distilled in this one statement a concept social scientists had been building to for almost 200 years. He recognized that we have a tendency to see a problem on an individual level. We understand crime, racism, or economic turmoil in terms of the individual(s) who deserves the blame. Consider the statistics about American scientific literacy. Who’s responsible for that? Is it the millions of Americans who likely don’t know that the earth’s surface is 70% water? Probably not as much as it is the school system or government standards of education. I couldn’t say without doing research, but that’s not really what this is about. It’s about understanding that entities like governments and school systems are societal institutions. They run under their own power and are rarely changed by a single individual.

The perfect example has been a topic of chief political concern since 2008. The economy is most certainly a large, systemic mechanism. It’s so big that it’s made up of institutions doing different things. According to Mills we can only really understand our lives within its context. These contexts have consequences that we often blame ourselves or other individuals for without fully understanding the context. Did you know, for example, whenever unemployment increases so does domestic violence? Or that when an individual is out of employment for more than a year they are far less likely to ever be employed again? This doesn’t remove personal responsibility from an individual, but understanding systemic qualities of society helps us to better understand things that don’t seem to make sense upon cursory inspection.

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4 thoughts on “Systemic Misunderstanding [Learn Social Science]

  1. Emily says:

    It seems to me that there is a divide in the sciences between “harder” physical, biological, and chemical sciences and “softer” social, psychological, and political sciences.

    The 9 Congress members you mention having a science background are physicists and chemists according to the article. I can guarantee that a much larger number of the remaining 426 members have a background in political and social science. Additionally, the Cal Academy of Science and Pew Center Quiz you reference have more to do with “harder” sciences than the “softer” sciences. While I got a 12/12 on the Pew Center Quiz, I’m not sure that I’d score as high on social science quiz.

    I guess that brings me to the question, how do you define scientific literacy? And how do/should both the “harder” and “softer” sciences fit into that?

  2. John Calhoun says:

    I would agree. There is a divide between soft and harder sciences. I talked about it a couple of weeks ago in the article linked here:

    http://thecoolship.com/2012/04/04/your-science-is-garbage-things-im-still-bitter-about/

    And I would also say that having a background in political science is not necessarily the same as having a background in a social science. U.S. politics have gotten into the bad habit of not using science as we understand it. When I graduated with a degree in political science I was surprised to find that most of what I actually learned (history, philosophy, theories of relations) aren’t part of how politics work now.

    That said, I think it’s less likely that someone will know what systemic inequality means than how long it takes the earth to orbit around the sun. That and I wanted this to be relevant to how we understand and implement policy.

  3. Emily says:

    Are there studies out there that show people’s understanding of the social sciences?

  4. […] because of systemic inequality. I went on a tear about this a couple weeks ago, and I’m glad I did because The Avengers is a […]

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