YouTube channel Crash Course is starting a new series on what is perhaps the most social of social sciences: Sociology.
The social sciences, such as sociology, but also psychology, economics, anthropology, and other similar fields get a lot of grief from people about not being “real” science. This criticism is typically justified by noting that scientific theories are about making predictions, and the ability of the social sciences to make predictions seems far weaker than, say, particle physics. Economists couldn’t predict when the Great Recession was coming, the argument goes, so it’s not a science.
But this ignores the fact that predictions are not always possible in the natural sciences either. Physics is the hardest of hard sciences, but it’s married to astronomy, an observational science. Astronomers can’t predict when the star Betelguese will go supernova. But they still know a great deal about star life cycles, and can tell that Betelguese is in a stage where it could go any time in the next few million years.
Likewise biologists can’t predict when and how a virus will mutate. They understand evolution well enough to know that they will mutate, but predicting what direction it will take is impossible. Meteorologists can’t predict the precise path of a hurricane, even though they understand how hurricanes develop and what factors lead to the path they take.
The problem is that these are matters not directly testable in controlled experiments. Which is exactly the problem with predicting what will happen in economies. In all of these cases, controlled experiments, where the variables are isolated until the causal link is found, are impossible. So scientists have little choice but to do careful observation and recording, and look for patterns in the data.
Just as an astronomer knows Betelguese will eventually go supernova, an economist knows that tightening the money supply will send contractionary pressures through the economy. They can’t predict that the economy will definitely shrink if the money supply is tightened because other conflating variables might affect the outcome, but they know from decades of observation that economic growth will be slower than it otherwise would have been. This is an important insight to have.
In the same manner, many of the patterns studied in the other social sciences don’t provide precise predictive power, but they still give valuable insights into what is happening. And again, there are many cases in the natural sciences where this same situation exists.
Why then all the criticism of the social sciences? I think the real reason is that the results of social science studies often have socially controversial conclusions. Many people dislike these conclusions. Often these people are social conservatives upset that studies don’t validate their cherished notions, such as traditionally held values. But many liberals deny science just as vigorously when it violates their ideologies.
Not that everything is ideal in these fields. I think anthropology ethnographers often get too close to their subject matter, living among the culture they’re studying for years at a time. While this provides deep insights not available through other methods, it taints any conclusions with the researcher’s subjective viewpoint. Often follow up studies don’t have the same findings. This seems to make ethnographies, a valuable source of cultural information, more journalism than science.
And psychology has been experiencing a notorious replication crisis for the last several years, where previously accepted psychological effects are not being reproduced in follow up studies. But the replication crisis was first recognized by people in the field, and the field as a whole appears to be gradually working out the issues.
When considering the replication crisis, it pays to remember the controversy over the last several years in theoretical physics. Unable to test their theories, some theorists have called for those theories not to be held to the classic testing standard. Many in the field are pushing back, and theoretical physics is also working through the issues.
In the end, science is always a difficult endeavor, even when controlled experiments are possible. Looking at the world to see patterns, developing theories about those patterns, and then putting them to the test, facing possible failure, is always a hard enterprise.
It’s made more difficult when your subject matter have minds of their own with their own agendas, and can alter their behaviors when observed. This puts the social sciences into what philosopher Alex Rosenberg calls an arms race, where science uncovers a particular pattern, people learn about it, alter their behavior based on their knowledge of it, and effectively change the pattern out from under the science.
But like all sciences, it still produces information we wouldn’t have otherwise had. And as long as it’s based on careful rigorous observation, with theories subject to revision or refutation on those observations, I think it deserves the label “science”.