1608 words • 6~10 min read

I’m a scientist. A social scientist. Please opine on the validity of my discipline.

amysquareI was incredibly disheartened to find a link to a blog post questioning, yet again, whether social science counts as science, this time by John Horgan at Scientific American. I’ve taken on the myths surrounding my career before, and quite frankly I’m getting sick of it. So this time, I’m going to pick myself up off the floor of frustration and hopefully help move the discussion beyond the same uninformed stereotypes we’ve all heard a million times before. Taken to the extreme, I feel as inaccurately portrayed as the scientist with crazy hair and colored test tubes.

Before I delve into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to tackle the definition of science. There are a number of mostly narrow definitions out there. The one I ascribe to is evidence-based. The research I do is theoretically-grounded, connects research methods to that theory, makes observations using those methods, and then draws conclusions based on that evidence. While this may sound general, science is a broad approach that rapidly sub-divides by discipline and philosophy from there. Now to the less philosophical part…

First, I take offense that all of the social sciences get lumped together into one category. Right off the bat, it shows an un-nuanced analysis of the state of the social sciences writ large. It’s a bit like lumping all of the natural sciences together – physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and others. Remember, we social scientists come from different disciplines with different traditions, sets of methods, pet peeves, and history – specifically, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and geography. That’s not even breaking down the categories as far as NSF goes, as they add law & society, social studies of science, and coupled human and natural systems, among others.

Speaking of NSF – funding for the social sciences across the board has only shrunk the same amount NSF has shrunk (a sadly large amount). Political science was unfairly targeted because – shocker – they turn a critical analytic lens to the political leaders of this country and the world. This is perhaps the time to discuss the needed unmelding of politics and science, but that’s another discussion altogether and one that has been tactfully taken on by many others. Another very real reason we receive less funding? We don’t need reagents for our research that cost thousands of dollars at a go. I think Horgan is conflating price with societal value. Any economist would tell you it’s more complicated than that.

The most egregious oversight in this article is the confounding of the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ science with qualitative and quantitative. Many of the social sciences are very quantitative – namely, sociology and economics – some qualitative, like anthropology, and others a mix. Horgan quotes from an equally confounded Economist article that states “data from social networks are making social science more scientific.” I think what they both meant to say is “more quantitative”. There’s a ton of Big Data emerging from social networks and computer archives of personal data. That means there will be many more scientists mining this data using statistical techniques. That is not to say that we weren’t scientists previous to this boon in data or that this data is inherently more valuable just because it comes in the form of numbers. Statistics can be even more subjective than qualitative approaches, as taught in a tongue-and-cheek way in early statistics classes with the book “How to Lie With Statistics“.

XKCD having a laugh about the predictive power of string theory.

Horgan also has a funny definition of soft science, accusing these ‘softies’ “of trafficking in theories so lacking in precision and predictive power that they don’t deserve to be called scientific”. I interpret this to mean that any research, then, lacking predictive power is not science? So studying string theory, the inner mechanisms of molecules, or all of descriptive biology doesn’t count as science? The controversy Horgan refers to was a media story over whether anthropologists (not all social scientists)  consider themselves scientists. As one of the most diverse of the social sciences, the American Association of Anthropologists put out a formal statement applauding the field’s plurality and supporting anthropologists who identify as scientists. But that debate is specific to anthropology.

The concern over the repercussions of sociobiology that Horgan refers to is true – practitioners of that particular theory were too quick to institute a number of unjust policies – and is a black mark on social science. But the problem stems largely from the fact that E.O. Wilson, a biologist without training in the social sciences, promoted a huge social theory without the nuance required. In the end, it was social scientists who put the story straight.

The more recent blending of neurology and many of the social sciences is not a similar reaching of researchers into the “hard” sciences. Instead, it’s a product of newly available technologies that can now tie chemical and physical changes in the brain to well-documented social trends. It’s a brand new discipline that promises to bring greater understanding to the human condition. But dismissing it as a group of wannabes is a bit like dismissing biochemists because they contaminate the ‘pure’ disciplines of biology and chemistry.

Finally, Horgan makes a valid point that studying humans is different than other disciplines because we can talk to, and possibly alter, our research subjects. That’s why there’s a careful ethical practice in place for human subjects research, both in the clinical and social sciences. But moving on, many other disciplines also perturb their observed. Marine biologists literally drill holes in the dorsal fins of sharks to attach satellite tags, field ecologists often rip out pieces of the ecosystem to see what will happen, and my favorite example from physics – the Law of Observation also known as the Observer Effect, which states that you can’t observe a particle without changing its quantum state and therefore the fundamental behavior of the particle. Hence a major divide between theoretical and experimental physicists. So perhaps it is all scientists who should think about making their claims with humility.

Related to this point, the conclusion that social scientists are therefore obligated to do applied research because we can talk to our research participants is analogous to the long-standing argument over whether funding should support the basic sciences that has recently re-emerged in the wake of the US sequester. I’ll not delve into that piece of controversy, but point you to a reality that is the state of this particular argument.

And, furthermore, to extend the argument that not only should social scientists be limited to applied research but they should also be called engineers – well, that’s just a personal affront. For someone who works on environmental sociology, sure, I’d like some of my study sites to move towards more sustainable cultural practices. But sometimes I’m not there to make the world a better place, just understand it better, figure out what makes society tick. That may be useful to tomorrow’s activists, or it may just contribute to satisfying that part of human nature that makes kids ask “why?”

In the end, I hope that people use Horgan’s article as a jumping-off point for a fruitful discussion about the social sciences. I think the fundamental misunderstandings that I frequently encounter, the ones that put many practicing researchers on the defensive, stem from a lack of basic education in the social sciences during elementary education. Remember when you had chemistry, biology, physics, and “social studies” in high school? A more well-rounded palate would have offered geography, sociology, and anthropology alongside physics. So while children learn the laws of Newtonian physics, they also learn social theories. Alongside dissecting frogs, they learn how to write a good survey. In that world, I won’t have to justify the validity of my field to those who grew up without a full suite of scientific experiences.