Is Social Science a Science?

From John Horgan:

Even when fortified by the latest findings from neuroscience, genetics, and other fields, social science will never approach the precision and predictive power of the hard sciences. Physics addresses phenomena—electrons, elements, electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, gravity—that are relatively simple, stable and amenable to precise mathematical definition. Gravity works in exactly the same way whether you measure it in 17th-century England or 21st-century America, in Zambia or on Alpha Centauri. Every neutron is identical to every other neutron.

In contrast, the basic units of social systems—people—are all different from each other; each person who has ever lived is unique in ways that are not trivial but essential to our humanity. Each individual mind also keeps changing in response to new experiences—reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, watching Lord of the Rings, banging your head on the ice while playing pond hockey, having a baby, teaching freshman composition. Imagine how hard physics would be if every electron were the unique product of its entire history.

Societies also vary markedly across space and time. France in 2013 is radically different than it was in Comte’s era. The United States today is quite different than it was a century, a decade or a year ago. Social scientists are chasing a moving target, one they can never catch. As anthropologist and archetypal softy Clifford Geertz once wrote, social scientists can construct only “hindsight accounts of the connectedness of things that seem to have happened: pieced-together patternings, after the fact.”

Here is the biggest difference between social and hard science: Protons, plasmas and planets are oblivious to what scientists say about them. Social systems, on the other hand, consist of objects that watch television; listen to the radio; read newspapers, journals, books, and blogs; and consequently change their behavior. In other words, social-science theories can transform societies if people believe in them.

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  • I think “hard” scientists are being very hypocritical if they say that “social” sciences somehow have lower precision or predictive power, as if that was a brute fact.

    Social sciences seem to have far lesser predictive power simply because the problems they try to tackle are usually far more complex, involving many factors. The fact that the human brain is far more complex and powerful than the world’s best supercomputers should make this readily apparent.

    In other words, the predictive power of any science is relative to the type and complexity of the prediction which you expect it to provide. (Of course, it is perhaps somewhat unreasonable to expect a “hard” scientist to realise this.)

    Meteorology is an interesting example of a “hard” science with very low predictive power (because we usually expect it to predict next Saturday afternoon’s weather, when it cannot even accurately predict tomorrow’s weather).

  • Oops, “the human brain is far more complex than the world’s supercomputers”, definitely. But more powerful? Perhaps not!

  • Adam

    I actually don’t think that humans through time are all that different. So much of understanding history relies on our common humanity. Any human, regardless of time or place understands a smile. We all need food and eating together draws us closer.

    If we’re all so radically different how to people of different languages communicate? Yet we clearly do. This seems to be hyper focused on surface details, like saying red and green apples are radically different.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    So what! What is really being claimed here? When I was in college in the middle 1980s, I majored in Psychology and in History. We had a class in The History of Psychology, which covered that era at the height of Positivism, just then past, when all of the social sciences were striving to be “scientific.” In Historiography — The study of the history of historical scholarship — we could read books that studied history by mathematics; these books had literally hundreds of pages of graphs, charts and statistics to back up their claims. But there was not all that much that they could study that way — They just did not have the information. They also tended to show that historians who were skilled at math had difficulty conveying meaning in interesting ways.

    After earning my Ph.D. in U.S. History, and directing a ministry to graduate students and faculty at a Tier 1 Research University, I will gladly take History’s ability to convey story and symbolic meaning over the narrow disciplinary limits and reductionism of much of today’s scientific work.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    If by social science one means anthropology, sociology etc – yes, this Earth scientist thinks of them as science. But then I have never been a fan of over-enthusiastic knowledge categorization. I also happen to think of Economics as a science, one much akin to the ones previously mentioned.

    Randy @ 4: “symbolic meaning over the narrow disciplinary limits and reductionism of much of today’s scientific work” – massive generalization. In my job as a Resource Geologist, I not only work with Earth Science, but also engineering, economics, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, paleontology…… Most of the accomplished scientific minds I have worked with are absolute polymaths.

  • Joe Canner

    Read the whole article. He is contrasting those in the social sciences who aspire to be “hard” scientists (rigorously collecting and analyzing data) and those who criticize social scientists for being too “soft”. He suggests that social science has considerable value, perhaps even more so than “hard” science in some cases, because of its ability to influence the way people behave.

  • SSG

    There is a more fundamental philosophical problem with categorizing the social sciences. Not only is the basic unit of the social sciences a person, and not only are persons complex, and not only are they responsive and affected by their environment (which the social scientist is a part of), there is also another difference between persons and protons: persons act for ends. A person’s actions are teleological. For example, I am going through the act of typing on my computer because I believe something (I have a certain mental state that is “about” something, what philosophers call “intentionality) and I desire to share it (I have a purpose or a goal). (Things might be even more complex if such a basic “belief/desire” theory of action is false, as if our actions are just the products of our beliefs and our strongest desires, and there are good reasons to think that is false or at least explanatorily useless, but I digress…). We are also first-person “egos;” and there seem to be facts about us that are irreducible to third person facts (this intuition is pumped by a philosophical thought experiment about Mary who is blind, learns everything scientifically possible about color, and then gains her sight and finally sees red).

    The problem with that is that these three properties are really, really, really hard to understand in the terms and concepts that modern science uses. Science relies on intersubjective, third person, evidence. Many facts about us are not intersubjective and may not even be put in third person terms. We have no mathematical descriptions of these properties; and I don’t know whether that is because they are fundamentally mathematically describable. And modern science, since Newton and Descartes, has effectively banished teleological explanations (unless we can reduce those teleological explanations in non-teleological terms, such as what we do when we talk about the heart’s function as “designed” by evolution). And if these properties are fundamental properties, or close enough (and there are worthwhile arguments to that end), then it seems the tools of modern science may be inadequate to understand human persons, much less societies.

    I, personally, am inclined to think that those properties (intentionality, teleology, first-person) are part of the fundamental building blocks of the world; I believe this partially because I am a theist and God (a fundamental entity if there ever was one!) has those properties. However, I am not sure whether to conclude that the study of persons could never be scientific, or whether to say that it can if science were to expand conceptually in x and y way. And, if persons cannot be understood scientifically, could they still be understood, or is there an irreducible mystery here?

  • After reading most of Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow — I beg to differ. Kahneman has helped me better appreciate how some aspects of the social sciences can be convincingly quantified.

  • ktb

    No. Next question?

  • Tim

    Social Sciences deal in the realm of variance and probability. But within that realm, there are certainly testable predictions that can be made. For instance, we know there is such a thing as a Confirmation Bias. We can run experiment after experiment and observe this effect. Granted each individual human subject may vary widely on what sort of situations are likeliest to elicit a confirmation bias and to which extent. This is simply due to the fact that humans are for more complicated than protons. But this does not mean that we cannot statistically demonstrate a Confirmation Bias effect reliably and consistently. We can.

    And of course Confirmation Biases are just one of a multitude of known, demonstrated phenomenon within the Social Sciences. So no, I do not share the author’s pessimism and denigration of the entire field of Social Sciences as some after-the-fact unscientific explanatory framework.