In the last couple of months I’ve had occasion to read three different papers that I thought were persuasive about a particular pattern of association between two variable correct, but were probably incorrect about the direction of influence. That is, the paper was all framed around the idea that X influences Y, whereas my conclusion was that the association more likely reflecting the influence of Y on X. While there are various strategies one can use to estimate parameters in the face of reciprocal causality and reverse causality, none of these papers had anything convincing to offer in this respect.
Anyway, here’s the part that I think is systematic: much of quantitative social science pursues the idea that some specific thing influences some more general thing–to be pithy, that a little thing causes a bigger thing–whereas the overwhelming way that the social world works is that general things have very broad effects that leak into all kinds of specific manifestations.
(Yes, I recognize this would be clearer with a concrete example and so apologize for the coyness. As recompense, I’ll offer a free diagnostic: if a paper seems to be structurally framed around the idea that X leads to Y, but at the same time the authors offer specific disavowals of their interest in causality, you should probably consider this a red flag that the authors have the independent and dependent variables of their study mixed up.)