The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The problems of social sciences

Are far harder problems than most of the problems of the hard sciences.  Why people do what they do, under what circumstances is a problem of vast complexity, and we don’t have the necessary models.  The models we do have (such as evolotunary psychology, and our abysmal knowledge of neuroscience), while powerful, are incomplete, and overly simplistic at capturing emergent behaviour, especially in groups, let alone the effect of culture.

That’s not to say we don’t know a lot, I’m hardly a great expert and I could teach many years worth of courses just with what I know, but we do not have the level of predictability the hard sciences have.  It also hard to falsify social science due to problems setting up the experiments, and when you use real world data, it’s hard to isolate variables.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that social sciences — and many humanities, are ideological enterprises which have an effect on the real world distribution of goods: who gets what.  They are used to justify distribution of goods: of the things people want.  When “hard” sciences, like biology, are used in this way, they too cross over into the ideological social science bucket and generally cease to be hard sciences.

This is because the “ought” is, so far, impossible to separate out of the humanities and social sciences. Ethics and morality are always lurking, and efforts like Skinnerian behaviouralism have all, so far, failed.  Humans are cussed, and complex, and reductionism only works in the most broad based and caveated sense, again, largely because of the effect of culture.  Say that all people are greedy, or selfish, or kind, or altruistic, or driven to pass on their genes, and the cultural anthropologist, or the pyschologist, will find you exceptions.  Humans biology imposes drives on humans, but the ways in which we satisfy those drives, or subliminate them, or even fight and deny them, is, if not infinite in theoretical terms, then infinite in practical ones.

All of this makes the problems of the social sciences vastly difficult, and far less progress has been made than most think.  Even neuroscience, which is not a social science, has teased out only a few mechanisms and has little understanding of how they mesh together.  In practical macro-terms, when dealing with problems of social organization that are province of sociology, economics, political science and mass psychology, we are not much more wise than the Ancient Greeks, and on certain issues, perhaps less so.

One should be wary of the experts.  It was not so long ago that pyschiatrists were mass lobotomizing people and treating them for homosexuality.  It is today that they are vastly overprescribing psychoactive prescription drugs to young children (and everyone else, especially upper middle class women.)  Following neo-liberal economists prescriptions has led to 40 years of stagnation, a financial crisis and a long depression for the developed world (yes, that’s what we’re in.)

The social sciences are still in the dark ages.  As with medicine in the dark ages, occasionally a gifted, wise or brilliant practitioner (usually applying souped up folk medicine) could do more good than harm.  You must look, carefully, at each individual social scientist, and decide if you trust him or her, because the degree and the discipline means little.  It is how the practitioner combines  the knowledge that matters, the knowledge is not currently in reliable, formulaic form, nor is there even a reliable method for creating formulas in the most cases (case studies and regression statistics have utility, but it is limited.)

So, ye who would enter the social sciences: know that you will be responsible for making it work, it doesn’t work as it’s given to  you.

And you who would consume it, be even more wary, for this is the dark age of social science, in which we pretend it is science, when it is still art.

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  1. Celsius 233

    And you who would consume it, be even more wary, for this is the dark age of social science, in which we pretend it is science, when it is still art.
    I am so pleased to see this post.
    The people who are the artists of social sciences are likely individuals who didn’t need the formal education of their respective disciplines in the first place.
    Margaret Meade on the positive side (as one example) and the monster, James Mitchell on the negative side.

  2. Jessica

    Thank you for bringing this up. I would like to take it a step farther.
    The subject, those who do social science, does not exist yet. Real social science can only be done by a society that is conscious of itself as a society. Perhaps real social science could be done by some subset of that society seeing things from the perspective of all of society until the entire society can do the job. However, until now, every group claiming to speak for society or to inquire for the sake of society has been doing so on behalf of some fragment of society.
    It may even be that true social science is so different from natural science, in terms of what it requires from the subject, that thinking of it in terms of “social science” is more harmful than helpful.
    The harm would come mostly from the implication, present even when denied, that social science could be and is neutral in the sense that the natural sciences sometimes are.
    What I think we are referring to by social science in the deepest sense is not merely the accumulation of knowledge about society, but the accumulation of knowledge for society as well as the maturing of society both through the act of inquiry with total integrity and through the acts of putting what is learned to good use. God, that is so jargony but it is too late at night to put it into real English. What I am trying to say is that the development of social knowledge and the development of the more advanced society capable of both inquiry and application of social knowledge will be intertwined with each other.
    When I write “social knowledge” here I mean truth as opposed to propaganda (deliberate manipulation of other’s attitudes) or ideology (sincere misperception caused by having a viewpoint that represents only part of society.

  3. Celsius 233

    @ Jessica;
    When I write “social knowledge” here I mean truth…
    And just what is that (truth)? And where does one find it?
    If, as Ian suggests, social science is art (and I think he’s correct); then it follows there can be no real, single, view or idea.
    At this juncture, there doesn’t appear to be a solution; viable or otherwise.
    Which leads in many directions of possibility…
    My own first choice is; stop listening to the leaders…

  4. someofparts

    I think Jessica makes all kinds of sense. Trying to fit the study of human behavior into the hard sciences template is probably the wrong way to go about it.

    Of course, just because we are in the dark ages in terms of such study doesn’t mean we don’t have to wing it anyway, ignorance and all. I’m thinking of judges and juries when I say that. They make crucial, life-altering choices every day, regardless of how flawed the process may be. For that matter, so do teachers and parents. Just because we don’t have information or even know how to get it doesn’t mean that we don’t need that information desperately.

    Also humans are ruled by instinct much less than the other creatures. When we evolved from our chimp cousins into critters who walk upright on our hind legs, this required females to have hips much narrower than we find in other primates, which obliges us to give birth to our young prematurely, in the sense that we are born without the full suite of instincts already installed. That’s one of many reasons why the first year or two of life are so crucial for young humans. We are literally finishing the job of installing instincts on ourselves.

    A good place to start emerging from the dark ages of social studies would be to truly and entirely stop exploiting women. We are already responsible for raising children and maintaining families and communities anyway. We just do it despite every imaginable obstacle put in our way. If our cultures helped women do our crucial work instead of exploiting and impeding us, great things might come of it.

  5. Spinoza


    Truth is that which conforms to objective reality. We discover what that is exactly by careful study, the accumulation of data, and the use of inductive and deductive reasoning. Which means Truth, with a capital T, is never complete in our minds but a constant journey. Although the context is somewhat different Flannery O’Conner once said something along the lines that “whenever we grasp the Truth we distort it in our own image”. I suppose the trick is to do as little distorting as possible.
    Now we can say its all opinion or impossible to be TOTALLY sure of anything, or that no one will ever know, that objective reality or the world around us is an illusion, or that many truths rather than Truth, whatever that means, is closer to the, er truth. But I defy you to find anyone who actually lives in such a manner. If truth or Truth and its search is an illusion or a fools errand then this fool is happy dreaming.

    It could also be asked “is what you said true?” ;o)

    OF course this could just be my own BS distortion. Probably true.
    Have a good day, sir or ma’am, you’re comments are among the best. :o)

  6. Keith

    I still think Galtung’s triangle is useful

  7. Celsius 233

    @ Spinoza;
    OF course this could just be my own BS distortion. Probably true.
    Indeed. Cheers… 😉

  8. Bruce Wilder

    Social sciences are different from physical sciences, and too many people think social sciences are harder than physical sciences, because it is hard (well, impossible) to make social science look like a physical science. The kind of pseudo-physics that some economists, for example, aspire to, just make for atrocious social science. Elasticity of a material might mean something to, say, a metallurgist, but elasticity of demand is just nonsense.

    In some important ways, though, social science is too easy. Every one is a practicing social scientist; just to get through the day, everyone must be a psychologist and an economist. The academic, to justify her place in the ivory tower, too often feels a need to make academic social science obscure or, at least, to emphasize counter-intuitive findings that confuse as often as they enlighten. Economists shy away from studying the actual economy, I suspect, because they fear businessmen will always have them beat, in understanding how the game is played. To try to understand how money and finance, or even the business cycle work, in institutional and historical detail, exposes the economist to ridicule by businessmen and financiers, who have mastered the art already.

    Many of the political problems of economics center as much on the difficulty of vindicating uncontaminated common sense, as establishing the relevance of any valid bit of esoterica. A policy of austerity in response to a failure of the financial sector requires that the body politic be schooled into economic ignorance. That perversity is not because economics is hard, but because no one can quite believe that economics can ever be easy.

  9. Synoia

    What science? Any “science” requires measurable, repeatable results. Do we have any measurements whatsoever for this?

    Do we even have agreement on what the measurements could be?

  10. someofparts

    “Although the context is somewhat different Flannery O’Conner once said something along the lines that “whenever we grasp the Truth we distort it in our own image” ”

    Expressing the same idea in a pop vocabulary, Bob Dylan said “Draw conclusions on the wall.”

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