Occasionally Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal captures an important insight, in this case, people’s attitudes toward the social sciences.
My attitude toward the social sciences is that they are quite capable of being scientific. They’re not always, but then even the “hard” sciences have their lapses.
On the one hand, what social scientists are studying exists at a higher abstraction layer from the more natural sciences. It reminds me of this old xkcd:
Each layer adds additional complexity, and uncertainty. Physicists can often achieve six sigma certainty in their results. Biologists can’t. And it becomes hopeless in psychological or sociological studies. The social sciences currently attempt to achieve p-values of .05 or lower, which means a 95% chance that the result is what they think it is, far lower than what can be achieved in the natural sciences, but a simple fact about the practical epistemic limitations they face. (Crowd sourcing services like Mechanical Turk can help, but not to bring the results to the levels enjoyed by physics.)
But the biggest issue is that, unlike the natural sciences, social science isn’t really studying timeless issues, but human behavior, and human behavior can change, particularly after humans have heard the results of social or psychological studies and taken that information into account. To a large degree, this makes studies of human behavior a moving target.
Alex Rosenberg, philosopher and self-labeled nihilist, after considering this information, concluded that the social sciences are hopeless. He thinks they’re at best entertainment. (A category he also relegates the humanities into, including presumably his own field of philosophy.)
Does that mean the endeavor is hopeless? I don’t think so. I think the issue comes from a binary view of knowledge: either we know something or we don’t. But that’s an unproductive view of knowledge. It leads many to conclude that true knowledge is impossible.
A more productive view is that knowledge is any reduction in uncertainty. With that conception of knowledge, observations that reduce our uncertainty about things, from complete unknown to broad probabilities, is better than no knowledge at all. Of course, less uncertainty is better than higher uncertainty, but any reduction of uncertainty, that is, any increase in certitude, is worth the effort.
This all seems like fairly common sense, so why do people resist it? I think the last caption above captures it. The social sciences are studies about us, and the results often clash with people’s deeply felt intuitions, intuitions that are behind many traditional views of humanity. The issues above on lack of certainty and timelessness simply provide an excuse for people to ignore the data and assert their own intuitions. When we get into fields like economics, political motivations, conscious or unconscious, factor heavily into it.
My favorite field, neuroscience, sits on the boundary between biology and psychology. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that its results are often tainted in the same way that psychological studies are. Studies about how our mind works are the ones most intimately about us.