Are the Social Sciences Scientific?

In principle, the scientific method can be applied to anything, I think. But it works better when you’re talking about, say, physics than when the subject is human behavior. The social sciences derive their prestige (such as they have) mostly by piggy-backing on the hard sciences, but there have been numerous scandals lately where the findings of “scientific” experiments have been impossible to replicate. To be fair, this happens in the actual sciences, too, but it is epidemic in the social sciences.

mdAnd why should we be surprised? Consider the case of Amy Cuddy, who is–remarkably–a professor at Harvard Business School. (A B-School alum writes: “In 1976-78 there was nothing…NOTHING! remotely like this at HBS.) I’ll bet not.

Prof. Cuddy is the foremost exponent of “power posing.” This is from the Unz Review, quoting Slate:

As practicing statisticians who work in social science, we have a dark secret to reveal: Some of the most glamorous, popular claims in the field are nothing but tabloid fodder. The weakest work with the boldest claims often attracts the most publicity, helped by promotion from newspapers, television, websites, and best-selling books. And members of the educated public typically only get one side of the story.

Consider the case of Amy Cuddy. The Harvard Business School social psychologist is famous for a TED talk, which is among the most popular of all time, and now a book promoting the idea that “a person can, by assuming two simple one-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful.” The so-called “power pose” is characterized by “open, expansive postures”—Slate’s Katy Waldman described it as akin to “a cobra rearing and spreading its hood to the sun, or Wonder Woman with her legs apart and her hands on her hips.”

In a published paper from 2010, Cuddy and her collaborators Dana Carney and Andy Yap report that such posing can change your life and your hormone levels. They report that the “results of this study confirmed our prediction that posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants: High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.”

Ms. Cuddy’s work was rapturously reviewed by such suckers as the New York Times and CBS News. Even Dilbert got into the act, but we assume Dilbert knew it was a joke:


As one should have expected, it turns out that “power posing” won’t cause one to conquer the corporate boardroom after all:

But when somebody attempted to replicate Cuddy’s popular study using a more sufficient sample size than Cuddy’s 42, they instead got a tiny negative effect size.

Too bad. If “power posing” could change your life, we could be a nation of Donald Trumps.

Generally speaking, social “science” studies that garner newspaper headlines fall into two categories: 1) they advance a liberal agenda, or 2) someone is making money. The power posing story falls in the latter, more benign category.


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