Like many New Yorker articles, it is structured as a straight chronology, telling the story of his crash from start to finish. But, at a few key moments, Mr. Seabrook interrupts the narrative to deeply explain the science behind what’s happening in the crash.
The car crash becomes a device for getting readers to care about long sections on, say, the molecular physics of black ice and other such topics, which are the actual meat of the article.
That’s the sort of thing we do as well in our Interpreter column — we look for moments to pause and explain the fuzzier science behind why people behave, organize and feel as they do.
When we wanted to explain the white populist backlash upending European politics, for instance, Amanda did it by profiling a small German town. The town was, for our purposes, the car crash. (No offense intended to its residents, who are lovely.) White populism was the science of black ice.
When we wanted to explain how modern-day warlords coexist with otherwise consolidated states, we profiled a Mexican town run by vigilante avocado merchants. When we wanted to explain how once-hopeful democracies curdle into majoritarian extremism, Max went to Myanmar. And so on. (Yes, we know how lucky we are and, no, we don’t know how we got this job, either.)
There’s something else Mr. Seabrook does that resonated with us. His article is animated by his own curiosity about the things around him. He hits a patch of black ice and, as narrator, expresses an immediate desire to learn how it forms and why it’s so dangerous. But he follows his curiosity to the wider world, considering bigger questions like the physics of ice or how road authorities detect and prevent its spread.
But that takes a few steps when it comes to matters of hard science. It’s a winding route from asking why black ice is so slippery to quizzing a physicist on the delineation between liquid and solid.
With social science, the leap from the particular to the universal is immediate. And that’s part of what we love about it. Because what is social science if not the search for universal truths and laws governing the forces that otherwise feel particular to our own individual lives, clans or countries?
Our equivalent of getting into a car crash might be, for instance, encountering the politics of white backlash in our personal lives. It makes us curious about where that anger comes from, which eventually leads us to small-town Germany, to find a car crash through which to tell the story.
Another example might be hearing friends express fear about terrorism, though, statistically, it poses little threat to them. We get curious about how that fear works and why it’s so much more severe than fear of something deadlier such as, say, car crashes.
Another: logging on to Facebook and experiencing the same bad feelings it seems to bring so many users, and wondering what those feelings mean for society.
These are the sorts of questions for which everyone has a guess. The great thing about social science is that it means we don’t have to guess. We can study the issues empirically. We can approach them the way that Mr. Seabrook thinks about the black ice sliding under car tires: as not just the cause of one particular crash, but as a universal phenomenon to be explicated and understood.
Those phenomena are a little less obvious when they exist in the realm of social science, but we think they’re pretty interesting. We hope you’ll find, like us, that once you start to notice those hidden moments of social science, you quickly realize that they’re everywhere. And you’ll find that the world is even more interesting than you’d thought.