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Sunday November 17, 2019
Posted: Oct 13, 2015

Hammers, numbers and stories: What good is a social science degree?

College Connection

As a professor of social science, I am often asked some variant of the question, “What good is a social science degree?”  Three recent encounters bring an answer into sharp focus.

The first of these was a recent presentation by a fellow professor from another discipline who asked, “How can we better value and affirm students’ stories in our teaching?” The second was an anonymous note complaining about the “constant need for stats and figures” in the upper-level criminology course I teach. None of the other courses she or he was taking in other programs involved so many references to quantitative studies; why should mine?

Shortly after I received that note, I stumbled upon the following claim in an Internet forum: “Far more people are killed by hammers in the U.S. than by guns.”

Although these three interactions occurred in different contexts, they are connected by a common thread. The tale about hammers and guns is told frequently online (see here and here and here and here for other instances of the same claim). Through repetition it has gained the appearance of agreed-upon truth.

But the appearance of truth does not amount to truth.  Social scientists working for the FBI have just released their annual compilation of national crime statistics, Crime in the United States 2014Table 8 of the expanded homicide section of this report provides a clear test of the claim:




Year after year, firearms have been the weapon used in a majority of American homicides.  Even lumped together with clubs, sticks, rocks, pipes and other sorts of blunt instruments, the share of killings accounted for by hammers doesn’t come close. On the other hand, media reports creating the appearance of a new “wave of gun violence” can be countered by the same source of statistics.  The absolute number of gun killings in the United States, as this chart makes clear, have declined 15 percent over the last seven years:




Neither the pro-gun story about hammers nor the anti-gun story about a “wave” of shooting deaths is supported by the careful collection and reporting of data regarding observed killings. Without the habit of repeated study by social scientists, all we would have are our stories.

This brings me back to the question, “How can we better value and affirm students’ stories in our teaching?” To be frank, I think this question inappropriately presumes the value of affirmation in education. While it is certainly important for us to identify and develop our voices as we grow in the world and take our place in it, it is also crucial that we learn to question the stories we tell. Social science research has identified a wide variety of biases, from anchoring to homophily to selective attention to pareidolia to the majority illusion, that systematically warp what we see as individual people. These same biases warp our stories.

Storytelling is an essential part of what it means to be human, and the study of storytelling has a valuable place within academics. But if we rely on and affirm our stories as a reflection of reality, we risk a life divorced from reality. If we try to solve problems in the world based on our anecdotes, we risk solving problems that are not there, or making real problems worse. Through careful observation, accumulation of data, and – yes – reporting of statistics, we gain a check against the personal biases of which we may not even be aware.

Gain a social science degree and you can work to lift our society’s vision above the limited horizon of individual experience. Take a social science class and, even if you don’t end up working as a social scientist, you can gain the tools to fact-check your own stories and glimpse beyond yourself.


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