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A manifesto for the social sciences

Both Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson make a strong case for standing up for rigorous science and the importance of pointing out when science is misunderstood and misused in politics and the media. This is a case long overdue and one very much in need of being made.

But standing up for science should not mean seeing narrowly-defined science and medicine as inherently superior to social science (or to arts and humanities for that matter). Setting up science as the holder of ultimate truth with other 'non-scientific' disciplines as secondary is unlikely to bring social scientists on board. I would argue that alongside standing up for science we need to be standing up for rigour, whether in the sciences or the social sciences.

It is absolutely right to highlight how many of the interventions in the social sciences are untested - quite simply, we don't know whether they work or not. Given the importance of the social issues that they are seeking to address, and the amount of public money spent on such initiatives, this is simply not good enough. But it's important to stress that there is a difference between not knowing whether something works or not, and assuming it doesn't work because it is untested. The only answer here is clearly to rigorously test such initiatives.

At Nesta we have been arguing for some time for rigour in the generation of evidence to help ensure we are making evidence-based social policy, and that policies government invest large amounts of money in are proven to work. This does not mean the primacy of methods such as randomised control trials (RCTs) above all other methods. There are important places for qualitative methods as well as other quantitative methodologies alongside RCTs. For example, once we know whether something works it's important to learn as much as possible about why it works. My colleague Ruth Puttick has written extensively on this.

The work of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, co-funded by Nesta, the ESRC and the Big Lottery has been set up to highlight these issues. If you're interested in the Geek Manifesto, come along to our event at Nesta to hear from Mark Henderson on why we need a manifesto for science. And then let's collectively work together on what a geek manifesto for the social sciences should look like.

Author

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Director, Public and Social Innovation

Jo led Nesta's Policy and Research work on public and social innovation, working closely with colleagues in the Innovation Lab and Investments.

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