Those Bush Tax-Cuts: Science Lessons from Mr. Softy

Who says that the social sciences are the soft sciences?! That never made much sense to me. Sure, you can’t do experiments in a lab, but you can formulate hypotheses, predict logical outcomes, and then search for confirmatory and disqualifying evidence. Yes, it’s devilshly hard to get the method right, hard to separate out bias and cultural convention, and to make a well controlled examination, but it’s possible. Triviality is more of a threat to the social sciences than softness. That is, doing statistical research to prove earth-shaking suppositions, e.g., that people prefer sweet things to sour things.  Here’s an example of the soft at their hardest,

The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research by Marc Abrahams.  I didn’t know the Republican right was so interested in advancing social science!

Dying to Save Taxes

Economists like to believe that people make rational decisions… could the timing of death be, to some extent, a rational decision? Economists presume that the timing of other important events, childbearing, marriage, may be so affected – why not dying?

Joel Slemrod of the U of M Business School examined death rates for 13 years in the 20th century during which estate taxes were either markedly increased or decreased by law.  It all boiled down to a simple conclusion:

“There is abundant evidence that some people will themselves to survive in order to live through a momentous event… some people will themselves to survive a bit longer if it will enrich their heirs… To be sure, the evidence is not overwhelming.”

In his acceptance speech at the Ig Nobel Prize Awards, Slemrod remarked:

“Little did we know when we did this research, the US Congress, in its wisdom, would vote to abolish the US estate tax for the year 2010 – and only the year 2010 -setting up the best natural experiment for [our] hypothesis ever conceived… Franklin once said that the only two inevitable things are death and taxes.  Well, come 2010, it will be death or taxes.”

Slemrod said that he was partially motivated by a desire to show that research in the social sciences could be fun. Hasn’t he heard of the Dismal Science?  Find out more about the Ig Nobel Prizes at their websiteWhile you’re there, check out this exciting development in census cartography!


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