Education, Genetics, Social Science

Sociology’s Stagnation Part II: Genetic Confounding

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The Sound of Silence, by Simon & Garfunkel

Remember the financial crisis of 2008? Imagine another one hits in a few years and economists debate how we should respond. Some economists predict that increasing government spending now, say on infrastructure projects, will “stimulate” the economy by putting money in workers’ pockets. The workers then spend that money on goods, which signals to producers that they should start ramping up production, and so on. Others oppose the measure, arguing that the money has to come from somewhere, and that experts don’t know enough about how economies work to know that the investment will pay off. After some debate, government agents decide that a stimulus package is the way to go. Several years after the stimulus, they notice a modest growth rate and conclude that the injection of government money worked.

As apparent as it might seem, there’s an obvious question left unanswered here: how would we know whether the stimulus worked? It could have been the stimulus spending, but it could have been something else altogether. What created the economic growth? Another way of sorting through this thought experiment is to ask: What would have happened if the government, or the federal reserve bank, had sat on their hands rather than acted (i.e., no stimulus)?

Many people are far too confident that they know the answer to these questions. Even many professional economists move all-too-easily from correlation to causation. The tendency to infer causation from correlation, and to overlook confounding variables, is not just a problem for economics. It is endemic to human reasoning. As one of us has argued previously, the affliction is especially obvious in sociology.

Sociology can be an important science, and sometimes it gives us valuable insights. But all too often sociologists and other social scientists are blind to anything other than social causes of social outcomes. Professionals in these fields continue to act as if we were blank slates waiting for social forces to mold us into the people we become. More to the point, many social scientists ignore the fact that genetic predispositions can explain social trends, and that individual differences in heritable personality traits can explain important social outcomes.

Consider another thought experiment. Suppose we observe that, on average, some people have lower marriage rates, and their children tend to do worse in school, have dimmer employment prospects, commit more crimes, and have worse long-term health outcomes. What do we make of this? How do we explain the correlations, and how would sociologists recommend that we fix the problem? Some argue that it’s obvious: if having children out of wedlock predicts poor life outcomes for children, marriage must be good for children – perhaps because it provides their parents with more income, or because two-parent households provide more structure and discipline and stability. This seems plausible enough, and maybe there’s some truth to it.

But notice that we’ve left out a crucial variable, or genetic confound, that may explain part of the difference in outcomes. For example, if personality traits like impulse control and intelligence are heritable, perhaps a trait like impulse control or intelligence can – to some extent – predict both the likelihood of getting married before having children, and life outcomes for children who, to some extent, inherit their characteristics from their parents.

We are not arguing that marriage is good or bad, or weighing in on the degree to which it can explain the relative success of the children of married couples. Instead, we are highlighting how easy it is for social scientists to ignore what should be an obvious confounding variable. One explanation for ignoring biological predispositions is “motivated reasoning” which stems from a set of political commitments. As Neven Sesardic observes, “Let’s face it, many people wish that hereditarianism [were not] true because the hypothesis of inherited psychological differences doesn’t sit well with their deeply ingrained beliefs about human equality and the ‘perfectibility of man’.”

There is no doubt left among behavioral geneticists that genetics can help explain differences in virtually all human outcomes. While that might sound like hubris or hyperbole, it is not. It’s simply an empirical reality. At some point, we’re going to have to embrace this reality and move on. But what does “moving on” look like in practice for social science (in which we include, political science, economics, criminology, psychology, sociology, and so on).

The eminent behavioral geneticist Eric Turkheimer has pointed out that knowing whether or not something is heritable has become quite uninteresting in many ways, as most things are heritable. Yet, the kinds of studies we use to know if something is heritable do far more than just spit out heritability estimates. These research designs allow for some of the most powerful insights available about whether or not one thing in the environment might cause another thing to happen. If you want to know whether or not some aspect of parenting really does influence some aspect of how a child turns out, a twin and sibling study is arguably your best option.

Imagine that you were in the process of building a new home. The foundation was poured, the studs were being framed, and work in general was proceeding nicely. One morning a building inspector shows up and informs you that your plans are not up to code. In fact, if you proceed at your current pace the roof could collapse on your head in the distant (or near) future without any warning. The inspector, however, tells you that she has no authority to force you to change your plans or alter your behavior. She only comes bearing a warning. The roof will cave unless you make the appropriate corrections in your blueprints. You have three options: 1) make the corrections, 2) ignore the inspector and push ahead, or 3) curse the inspector for ever coming on to your property, and then push ahead as planned. So far, many social scientists in general, and sociologists in particular, have opted for either 2 or 3. Over the next few decades we’ll see what happens to the roof.


See also: Sociology’s Stagnation Part I

Filed under: Education, Genetics, Social Science


Jonathan Anomaly is a core faculty member of the Freedom Center, and Assistant Professor in the PPEL Program, at the University of Arizona.. Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1


  1. NickG says

    Good article, however it’s missing the policy implication section, other than the rather obtuse roof analogy. This has deeply profound implications that ripple through to public policy on immigration, current race preference policy (euphemistically called affirmative action), social and welfare policy, foreign policy.

    But I guess that would be too non PC.

    • joelammers says

      The implications of this article for the social sciences would be disturbing, I think, to most social scientists. In effect it is saying that much, or maybe even most, of their research is worthless. Part of the problem is that the social sciences are considered science. I don’t think they are; they should be considered more as liberal arts, such as history or philosophy. Perhaps not even that.

      • Ripley says

        “[I]t is saying that much, or maybe even most, of their research is worthless.”

        It is, which is why there are so many forces in academia allied against scholarship into theories that challenge those which sociologists declare universal truths.

        “Part of the problem is that the social sciences are considered science. I don’t think they are; they should be considered more as liberal arts, such as history or philosophy. Perhaps not even that.”

        You’re absolutely correct. Sociology and it’s sister pseudoscience psychology are more marketing tools than real scholarly disciplines; they serve as revenue generators for universities and indoctrination tools for political agitators.

      • Marion Mitchell Morrison says

        Disagree. Social sciences do find principles of behavior, however as implied, they need to reconcile with the genetic confound, the fact that individual behavior may be greatly determined by genetics. It’s just that the extent of the determination is unclear.

  2. Michael Clegg says

    A very good article.

    Including psychology in the list of social sciences is, perhaps, a little simplistic. Psychology covers a multitude of sins with theoretical stances ranging from those which accept only social causation, through computer metaphors for mind, to full-blown neuro-science, and methodological approaches encompassing everything from quantitative description to well-designed, qualitative experimentation. Dishearteningly, for the theme of your piece, these disparate – sometimes contradictory – approaches have co-existed within the discipline for a long time, with no apparent signs of mutual learning or of the more rigorous approaches winning out.

  3. I agree with Michael that psychology is a large discipline in which comparatively hard science sits uncomfortably alongside woollier methodologies. It doesn’t yet seem to have reached the stage that chemistry and astronomy did before they could shake off the baggage of alchemy and astrology.

    • Ripley says

      “It doesn’t yet seem to have reached the stage that chemistry and astronomy did before they could shake off the baggage of alchemy and astrology.”

      Sure it has – it’s called, “Psychiatry,” which is psychology for people who made it through organic chemistry and into medical school.

  4. How do we know that the theoretical stimulus was the cause of the theoretical increase in economic activity? It’s called “observation”, one of the foundational elements of the scientific method. As a sociologist I suppose the author can be forgiven for this lack of understanding. If he really wants to know why sociology is “stagnating” perhaps it has more to do with the discipline’s lack of rigor which, in turn, leads to implausible and often outright ridiculous outcomes.

    • Dennis says

      To Genesis:
      You missed the point. Causes are not directly observable, and there are often multiple causes for a single phenomenon. The point is that just observing a correlation doesn’t help us much.

  5. Sociology has abandoned the pursuit of truth for the delusional pursuit of racist narrative….these people are completely unable to have an honest discussion about genetics and statistical facts. As a result they have turned the entire field into a massive intellectual sewer.

  6. Yandoodan says

    Three different points:

    1. The pursuit of genetic causes, or even influences, is simplistic. Take, for example, marriage. As there are as many different forms of marriage as there are cultures, marriage is clearly not inherited. But then, every culture has some form of marriage, no exception, so marriage is clearly inherited. It’s a point of view thing, and a research goals thing. There is no absolute, physics-style truth here.

    2. Inherited traits are pretty much the same everywhere. Humans don’t have a lot of genetic variation. If we were studying dog societies it might be more relevant, but we aren’t. Think of meteorology. Outer space is found in every single aspect of meteorology. Does that mean meteorologists need to become experts in space science? Clearly not. Outer space affects every aspect of meteorology equally, so we can ignore it. [Climatology is different.]

    3. If you want to see something that actually affects society and in a big way, something that sociologists ignore, look at space. Not outer space — the space between, say, 3rd Street and 10504 Street. Moving through space (on the Earth’s surface, mind) is expensive, and the more you move the more expensive it gets. So societies organize themselves around costs of movement. Sociologists who ignore this (all of them AFAIK) necessarily produce garbage.

  7. joseph Robbins says

    There is a lot of hubris in the idea that genetics explains all human behaviors and that’s it. When you read this article you get to see how eugenics got to be so popular, even among scientist, in the early twentieth century. The arguments they made were exactly the same as the arguments in this article.

    • Sam Smyth says

      Anamoly is a self-professed “liberal eugeneticist.”

    • Ripley says

      “The arguments they made were exactly the same as the arguments in this article.”

      Fallacy; just because bad people recognized a scientific truth doesn’t make the truth bad.

      “There is a lot of hubris in the idea that genetics explains all human behaviors and that’s it.”

      Fallacy; the article (and most geneticists) isn’t arguing that genetics “explains all human behaviors and that’s it.” What this article – and rational scientists who haven’t been muzzled by logic fallacies – suggests is that genetics plays a significant role (50% ? we don’t know, because people like you won’t let us conduct real research) in development, and that there is variation – sometimes significant – from person to person.

Comments are closed.