The audacity of sociology

There once was a campaign consultant who wanted his candidates to have only three qualities. First, he insisted that they have lots of money. Second, his clients must have the ability to keep their mouths shut. His third requirement was that they be intelligent, but he confided that he cared only that they be smart enough to understand his reasons for keeping their mouths shut. This past week, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) inadvertently demonstrated the importance of a candidate being smart enough to know when to shut up.

I’m referring, of course, to Obama’s dissertation on the sociology of “bitter people.” His awkward analysis reminded me of something I have observed about youthful candidates from both parties.

Younger candidates with lots of education are frequently burdened by a faux familiarity with social and behavioral sciences. Their supposed expertise in the corpus of sociology, social psychology and related topics often makes smart lawyers like Obama say and do dumb things.

This all stems from the educational establishment’s efforts during the post-Vietnam years to make social sciences a standard part of the curriculum, even in K-12 schools. Today, it’s in full flower.

Obama’s daughters will get an even bigger dose of social sciences than their dad got. If you don’t know what’s happening in schools these days, check out the Fox network’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” on Thursday nights. Based on real-world school curricula, the program poses elementary-level questions in a category of social science, as in “I’ll take a third-grade social science question for $25,000.” Social sciences are on a par with math, spelling and even solid sciences like geology and health. I don’t know the precise chronology of when this upgrade of the social sciences occurred, but it permeates every level of education today, from kindergarten through grad school.

Earlier generations of students like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) weren’t burdened with learning concepts like social distance theory or cognitive dissonance reduction. They were too busy learning to read, write and do math problems. The closest they may have gotten to a social science would have been economics (and most economists would shudder to think of their discipline being classified as a social science or a subject that politicians speak about extemporaneously). So when a question comes along that would better be left to the successors of C. Wright Mills on today’s college campuses, the old-timers know what to say: nothing.

A young politician who has had a single course in geology would probably be reluctant to discuss the geological factors occurring as a prelude to a volcano erupting. But that same politician, armed with a course in sociology, has no reluctance to discuss a topic like “bitter people” and their response to adversities. It’s because — I suppose — the social sciences are all about us, the human people.

Because the politician is one of the smarter human people who interacts all day as a “participant observer” studying other, less intelligent, people he encounters, and he’s had a course in the science of people, he’s an expert. So he gabs about what he “knows.”

Obama’s infatuation with social science is profound. During Sunday evening’s Compassion Forum, the senator was asked to comment on faith-based abstinence programs designed to combat AIDS in Africa. As a good politician, he initially told his questioner what he wanted to hear, but then went on to speak of his enthusiasm for behavioral modification programs that are proven effective by “the science” of AIDS prevention research. He said this with the assurance that such knowledge indisputably exists.

Someone needs to intervene and tell young politicians like Obama that even most social scientists themselves are frequently hesitant to unequivocally extol the “hardness” of their research.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.