Over at SocArXiv, two University of Michigan political scientists just posted a wonderful, short comment on my stylized facts paper. In the original paper, I argue that stylized facts are empirical regularities in search of explanation, that the production of stylized facts should be understood as an important component of social scientific practice, and that stylized facts are capable of doing political work even in the absence of well-established causal explanations. In their comment, Crabtree and Fariss (C&F) offer a nice clarification in the context of experimental social scientific research programs.
When I wrote my paper, I had in mind the largely about descriptive statistics produced by sociologists and economists, often from survey or administrative data, which then feed the theoretical enterprise of modeling and the hunt for mechanisms. C&F rightly note that social scientists are also experimentalists, and that these experiments produce a particular kind of knowledge that is similar to, but distinct from, the sorts of stylized facts I had in mind. They write: “`Robust stylized facts,’… are empirical regularities in search of theoretical explanations. These facts make causal claims, are produced by experimentation, and are supported by internally valid findings.” (4)
I like this distinction, and want to offer a shorthand for it. Stylized facts offer description without causation. Robust stylized facts offer causation without explanation. That is, the kinds of findings explored by C&F under the heading of robust stylized facts claim to have strong (“robust”) predictive validity. Like the phenomena of the natural sciences discussed by Ian Hacking (one of the motivating sources for my paper), robust stylized facts can be routinely produced through manipulations – but we don’t yet know why.
That said, I’m left with a terminological quibble. If robust stylized facts are internally valid, repeatable products of intervention, why not just call them “phenomena”? What do we gain by expanding the concept of stylized fact to include them? Perhaps this expansion better maps onto contemporary discourse – I should go read the experimental political science literature more closely to see what they talk about when they talk about stylized facts. But, for me, the primary importance of writing a paper about stylized facts as a narrowly descriptive phenomena was to help make sense of the role of description in social science, and the way that social sciences grappled with their mass of non-experimental findings as parts of research programs.
Put differently: I think “robust stylized fact” makes sense on its own as a concept, and perhaps it will serve as a useful tool for helping scholars distinguish between things they are calling stylized facts that derive from repeatable interventions (“robust stylized facts”) and those that derive from aggregate observations (“stylized facts”). But I worry that treating this as an expansion to the concept, rather than a close but disjoint cousin, might detract from the analytical utility of the concept of stylized facts.