10 Myths About Social Science

Over the last couple of years of doing social science research at a marine laboratory, I’ve heard any number of comments about the social sciences that are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture of a different (and relatively new) discipline. In a broader context, the Social Science, Behavior, and Economics (SBE) directorate of NSF was recently under fire and threatened to be cut entirely from NSF for ‘not being a science’. Under the umbrella of Ocean of Pseudoscience Week, I’m going to tackle some of those myths.

10. Social scientists hide the fact that they have nothing to say in impenetrable jargon.

Admittedly, many social science journals are filled with jargon and complicated theory that are impenetrable by anyone outside the discipline. Part of this is due to the fact that most social sciences are still in the young, growing stages – and this means theory-building. We’re creating new words to describe never-before-described phenomena and deciding which of those terms will work for future discussion on the matter. Many pages of our journals are therefore filled with dense social theory terms as people make tiny contributions to big understanding of the way society functions. On the flipside, there are a few journals and other outlets (such as blogs like this one) for a translated version, lots of times for policymakers, that offer easy-to-understand conclusions and empirical examples.

Furthermore, to defend our use of unfamiliar vocabulary, I’d like to point out that I never heard of the discipline ‘geography’ until I arrived in graduate school, even though that’s a field with which I largely identify today. It’s due to my particular educational history, but I’m sure I’m not alone, as geography is disappearing in secondary and higher education. In fact, up until college with its distinct disciplines physically separated on campus, “social studies” – the one class – is meant to cover all the social sciences, history, and many others in one fell swoop. I’d argue that the reason people find social scientists full of jargon is that they haven’t received the basic education they deserve that helps them understand the lingo of other disciplines.

9. Social scientists are anti-social.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand cultural dynamics. I’ll be the first to admit that social scientists are a little unusual, especially if you are the subject of their research. However, I’d argue that our nerdiness is because we are constantly surrounded by our study system – in life, love, and research. As a result, it’s a little harder for those of us who study people to shut off the ‘work’ side of the brain than other researchers.

8. Social science is not objective.

No science is objective. That may sound revolutionary, but recognition that researchers are in fact human is gaining ground. With that recognition comes the fact that science cannot be inherently objective, but instead subject to sway according to politics, culture, and personal history. It’s not that an individual will measure something differently based on whether they have a personal stake in a scientific issue – but instead more about which researchers get funded, how the results are transferred into policy, and how the objective measurements are interpreted. For instance, a recent study of decreased global turtle bycatch was interpreted by mass media outlets as either “bycatch reduced by 90%, great!” or “turtles die by the thousands”. Social scientists are simply willing to recognize that objectivity is impossible and instead follow protocol of describing what possible influences the author might have. This runs the gamut to having married into a community of study to having a Boston accent in a deep south study site. All these things make a difference as to what kind of data you will collect. The other group of scientists openly grappling with this question are physicists, arguably “the only real science”, such as in Quantum Diaries and Must Use Bigger Elephants. I suspect others will be soon to follow.

7. Social science has no ‘laws’.

Darwin hasn’t arrived yet for the social sciences. Oh, wait, evolution’s not a law either.

In all seriousness, there are general principles that social sciences follow which I like to refer to as “big T Theory”. It’s all that stuff we write about that gets us the reputation of constantly spouting jargon. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber are the founding fathers of sociology and ground much of current social scientific thinking in as much as a law as we can create. Still, these are theories like evolution and given that society is moving to places history has never seen before, there will likely be some tweaking in the future. Analogous to when we discovered DNA for the theory of evolution.

6. Social scientific findings are reducible to natural science explanations.

There are some fascinating interdisciplinary studies using neurobiology to explain social behaviors and human decision-making. These studies provide advances to both neuroscience and the social sciences, but they are far from describing all of society. Not to mention, even if there are chemical explanations to why we do what we do, it’s a complex world out there and I’m not sure chemistry will be a satisfactory answer to all questions. For instance, what is consciousness? Why do we have certain reactions to societal situations? Humans have some control over their body’s natural reactions. Chemistry can only answer the ‘how’, not necessarily the ‘why’.

5. Nothing in social science is ‘real’.

There are some social scientists who believe in social constructionism – that is, that everything is created in the human mind and not necessarily physically real. To them, perhaps, nothing is real. But that is a far cry from nothing in the social sciences is real – and requires a philosophical leap of faith.

4. Social science is not hypothesis-driven.

I’ve also heard this one as “social science is not empirical”. Both refer to the fact that not all social scientific studies use the scientific method. First – some do. Others quickly run into an ethics boundary, where experimenting on people and their communities is not exactly moral. Studying people is similar to field ecology studies – there are conservation concerns, there are almost always surprises, and there is not always a ‘control’ for comparison. Some systems are just flat-out unique.  In both of these cases, the scientific method is more fluid than what most people learn in elementary school. It’s exploratory research and the data speaks for itself – what is referred to in social science as ‘grounded theory’ and in field ecology as ‘natural history’. The research is still theoretically grounded, connects research methods to that theory, and draws conclusions based both the methods and the theory. Sometimes there is a hypothesis but some other research question emerges as more interesting. It’s nice to have the freedom to follow that lead.

3. All social science data is anecdotal.

The anecdote comment refers directly to a lack of respect of qualitative research generally, not just in the social sciences. Connected to the lack of elementary education in the social sciences, students are not taught to deal with qualitative data until college or later. Therefore, reading data in a social science paper consisting of quotes, pictures, and stories seems like the author could pick and choose data or failed in some way to do rigorous analysis. Little do the accusers of ‘anecdotal data’ realize what kind of methodological rigor went into identifying subjects, ensuring a diverse subject pool, raising response rate, and coding that data for analysis. Few other myths raise the hair on the backs of social scientists as much as this one.

Furthermore, some social science is extremely quantitative, so lumping all research into one qualitative boat is not a fair assessment either. Qualitative methods are better for in-depth case studies, but that is only one side of the coin. In fact, many quantitative analysis techniques stem from the social sciences – most notably, statistics. The field was first developed to deal with demographic and economic data.

2. Social science primary literature never includes any data.

In many ways, social scientists are privileged to have study subjects that can put results into words. Those words are easily woven into narrative, so qualitative data read as stories and can be overlooked as empirically produced data. Even the quantitative data from surveys or censuses is often presented in text with only a few charts or graphs and lots of explanations. I like to attribute this myth to a culture of well-written papers, even if they are full of jargon.

1. Social science is not a ‘science’.

Perhaps the number one myth of them all, this one has real funding consequences for individual researchers and even whole funding agencies. Many of the misconceptions about the rigor of qualitative approaches, objectivity, and use of the scientific method ostracize the social sciences in the scientific community. The social sciences seem to always be on the defensive – to be allocated time in elementary education, space in scientific agencies and organizations, and respected as researchers. Hopefully this will change as people become more acquainted with social science approaches.