I have long wanted to write a long essay on causal inference for humanists. The idea behind this essay would be to lay out the fundamentals of causal inference in the social sciences for an audience of people trained in an entirely different way of doing academic research.
This would be different than the more conversational introductions to causal inference and statistics that are very popular these days, like Mostly Harmless Econometrics, or Murray (2006) on instrumental variables, or my old favorite “Maximum Likelihood for the Masses” by Don Green. Those books and articles are nevertheless geared towards social scientists who want to use this methods. The essay I have in mind would be far less technical, much more illustrative, and most important, precise and exacting about how to be a proper critic of this type of work. I want, in other words, to bring contemporary methodological debates on causal inference to a new audience. Not within the harder social sciences, or even to the perestroikans, but outside of that community altogether.
Why do this? Because there is such a yawning gap between what most historians, anthropologists, critical area studies people, etc think that social science methodology is and what most of the contemporary methodological debate is actually about. I think it would be useful, even fun, to start these conversations, at least to the extent that others want to join in. At the very least, it would be great to have on hand an essay like this to share to my colleagues who work in a more traditional area studies vein but who are still preoccupied by early 1990s debates about quantification and rational choice theory.
I bet that lots of you reading this blog would enjoy reading a long essay of that sort. So why don’t I write it? Because I can’t think of any way to publish it. There’s no way that the American Historical Review or the Journal of Asian Studies or Comparative Studies in Society and History, three outlets that might have some reach in the communities I wish to converse with, would ever publish an essay of this sort. There’s also no way that any serious political science journal would publish it (they shouldn’t—I don’t have any novel contribution in mind, and my audience isn’t social scientists anyway). If I wrote an essay like this, it would be a permanent working paper. That means I can blog about it, put it online for any to read, share it on SSRN, but that won’t give me the reach I want. And I can’t figure out my incentive to do things that neither get broad attention nor get a nice CV line.
This, then, brings me to the title of this post. I would write an unpublishable essay of this sort if there were a serious working paper series in which it could appear. The model I have in mind is the working paper series from the National Bureau of Economic Research. These are not peer-reviewed, but they are widely shared and discussed in a way that gets the ideas out even if they never become formal journal articles. Having a paper that is a permanent NBER working paper isn’t ideal, but it’s also not that bad. There are of course problems with the NBER itself, like its clubbiness and its relative deemphasis of topics like development, but my point about the value of the working paper series still stands.
Why doesn’t political science have anything like this? Don’t know. But I sure wish there were such as a thing.
Zach Jones April 16, 2015
i have thought for some time about creating something like the arxiv for social science. basically ssrn except not terrible. you could have rss feeds, email lists, organization by topic, etc. on there. the question is whether it is possible for such a thing to catch on without the cache that comes with being (political science) famous or having the backing of a major organization/funder. thoughts?
tompepinsky April 17, 2015
I think you’re exactly right, Zach, that major funding or poli sci fame are preconditions for something like this being successful. But I’m also coming to believe that it has to be exclusive too, unfortunately. The NBER model rests on the following things:
1. It has lots of money
2. It is selective (not everyone gets to be a member)
3. It has lots of conferences
4. Those conferences are selective
Combine those things and you have a working paper series which is serious.
Without those things, we have this major coordination problem in which most everyone in the discipline probably believes that it would be great to have a prestigious working paper series that everyone paid attention to, but no such series would have that cachet unless all the best people all were already submitting their best papers to it.