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The campaign for real social science

Bruce Newsome, Lecturer in International Relations | September 7, 2015

Where is the science in the social sciences? In recent decades, the social sciences have been reduced to social studies.

This is not just a matter of literacy. Teaching the “social sciences” as mere “social studies” is to the detriment of (ironically) society.

Academic programs that call themselves “social scientific” but ignore the science inevitably decline into mere storytelling, unsound agendas, and purely philosophical discourse.

These programs have robbed students of the opportunity to develop useful research and analytical skills. This helps to explain complaints from employers about a lack of basic skills offered by graduates. Students themselves seem to lack the skills to realize their own value: employers rate graduates as much less prepared than graduates rate themselves.

These research and analytical skills are useful to everyday challenges, such as researching what products to buy, where to invest, and how to vote.

Agenda-driven social studies

The decline of real social science inevitably makes way for agenda-driven social studies. Unfortunately, social issues are inherently agenda-driven. Most social phenomena are observed as issues (things that need to be resolved). The issue that prompts research also usually prompts an agenda. By contrast, the natural sciences tend to start with observations of physical phenomena, so they are naturally more evidence-based.

In recent decades many new disciplines have been recognized on campuses, such as “war studies,” “peace studies,” and “ethnic studies.” Often they arise from dissatisfaction with an established social science’s neglect of some field or issue. In other words, they arise from agendas. Some of these agendas are justifiable: “women’s studies” arose from neglect of female issues. However, agendas tend to agenda-driven research, which tends to neglect evidence, to neglect other issues, and to reverse the prejudices against which the original agendas had rebelled.

These problems are common to politics – as observed in obfuscatory discourse, simplistic political correctness, and knee-jerk counter-productive reactions to events. More worrying, they are increasingly common in academia.

Agenda-driven anti-scientific trends are not confined to the new fields alone. They have emerged in previously respected applied sciences, such as the scandal-ridden profession of social work, some of whose professors assert prejudices – such as the claim that children do not need fathers, contrary to calls for more “evidence-based professionalism”.

Fashionable agendas migrate into the news media too, as illustrated by Rolling Stone magazine’s sensational article on a gang rape that never happened.

Many subjective commentators on social issues call themselves social scientists because they want the credibility suggested by the term “scientist,” without the accountability of the scientific process.

For agendas of inclusivity, social scientists may be unwilling to challenge the conceit of social studies claiming to be social scientific. Even the so-called “Campaign for Social Science” (launched by the Academy of Social Sciences in 2011) does not define the social sciences with any reference to science – instead it lists some subject areas. It posts testimonials online about how important are psychologists, for example, to the economy. It is not a campaign to promote the scientific skills that would differentiate an empirical psychologist from the rash of subjective nonsense out there.

What is social science?

The word science essentially means a replicable way of verifying knowledge (also known as empiricism). In more practical detail, this usually involves carrying out observations, developing theories that could explain the observations, and looking for evidence to support a theory—all in a replicable way. A social scientist uses science to study human society.

Scientific skills are not remote exotic skills of rare use. You do not need to be a hard scientist or natural scientist (a biologist, chemist, or physicist) to use scientific skills. In fact, scientific skills are natural: humans develop scientific skills as children, when they test how different objects interact. When children start to talk, they quickly demand or offer evidence during an argument. Any parent or teacher who has encouraged children to prove that they have washed their hands by showing their clean hands has essentially helped children to understand the value of evidence. Anybody who has asked how a meal was prepared or how a room was painted has essentially engaged with replicability.

Science can be applied anywhere. Scientific skills are demanded in professions and endeavors that contain no explicit reference to science. For instance, managerial skill sets now routinely include “performance measurement.” Much research is now differentiated as “evidence-based.” In each case, the approach is fundamentally scientific; if we could not replicate it, how would we know whether performance is being measured effectively or whether the research is truly evidence-based?

The confusion and conflation of social science

Any definition of the social sciences as simply the study of human society is illiterate. To make that definition literate, we would need to rename the social sciences as “social studies,” but not all social students are social scientists. For instance, social historians study human society in the past, but they would not claim that the topic alone makes them social scientists.

Consider these two contrasting departments that claim to be social scientific – one literately, the other illiterately. First, Loughborough University’s Department of Social Sciences accommodates social psychology, sociology, social policy, criminology, and media and communications, without controversy – all these subjects are societal and fall within the formal social sciences.

Now compare King’s College London’s Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, which includes the Institute of Contemporary British History (history is not a science, any way you cut it, although historians can benefit from scientific skills), Defence Studies and War Studies (both are divestments from history with partisan agendas without teaching scientific skills), education and professional studies, geography (this conflates the natural sciences with the social), management, political economy, and “social science, health, and medicine” (which conflates social sciences with applied sciences).

Restore the science to the social sciences

Readers might be wondering how one could possibly choose what to favour in a world of increasingly diverse opinions. Science does not offer a panacea, and one should not choose sides in a scientific dispute unless one develops the functional expertise to judge between them, but one should always choose a scientific approach over a non-scientific agenda. “Scientificness” always offers a better measure than fashionability, popularity, or conformity with a particular agenda. We cannot eliminate biases, we just need to minimize unjustifiable biases and maximise justifiable biases. We should favour scientific over anti-scientific approaches, just as we should favour human well-being over human harm.

Unfortunately, many educators assume that students have imbued scientific skills by experience, but such expectations are unrealistic and unhelpful. The essentials of science are natural, such as experimentation and evidence, but scientific skills still need to be developed and practiced deliberately, otherwise they become unstable. Science takes disciplined commitment to a learned set of skills that do not come easily and that I do not have space to explain here – the minimum social scientific process that I have explained elsewhere has 19 steps. The educator is responsible for developing these skills, not for leaving them to chance. The skills need to be practiced, maintained, and held accountable throughout the lifetime of a project, a programme of instruction, and a career.

You do not need to be a social scientist to realise the value of social science or to demand real social science from your educators, officials, and broadcasters. All of us should demand that they – on society’s behalf – should favor scientific rather than non-scientific agendas.

Comments to “The campaign for real social science

  1. Dr. Newsome, I appreciate your alacrity in separating responsible and honest research from ‘Agenda Driven Social Studies’. However, I question the value in demarcating science from other forms of inquiry in the Social Sciences. I hope you might consider a few reasons I list below to adopt a more broad understanding of good methodology in the social sciences. I also hope you will forgive my limited treatment of a topic which I believe deserves far deeper discussion.

    You emphasize ‘replicability’ in your definition of science. This definition aspires to the practice of physical science and medical journals which expect replicated studies to reproduce results. Adopting the research standards of the physical sciences is ideal but inherently unwieldy. The object of study in physical science is lifeless matter, but the object of social sciences is a qualitatively different beast. Societies and individuals learn, while atoms and particles do not. While the paths of particles are predictable, knowledge of the social future is self-defeating. As Deirdre McCloskey frankly puts it, “If you’re so smart, oh predictor of human events, why ain’t you rich?”

    As a consequence, no true experiment can be performed on a society. At best, we have ‘natural experiments’ which are presumed to isolate the effect of a treatment. Such results are often convincing (even actionable) but a far cry from physical truth.

    The desire to separate history from other social sciences is greatly disconcerting. While modern methodology is useful in establishing and testing models of social behavior, the study of history puts results in context. The study of monetary policy in economics has made incredible progress as (what you might consider a) “scientific” study, but Ben Bernanke’s response to the recession of 2007-2009 was also shaped by his close study of the gold standard during the Great Depression. Is Alexander Gerschenkron’s concept of relative Backwardness useless to the modern developmental economist because he did not use t-tests?

    We must not forget that reporting the results of research is a rhetorical act: the social scientist must communicate her results to an audience. Speech with an audience necessitates persuasion, and the ‘appeal to science’ is a logical fallacy. Social scientists (as with physical scientists) benefit from realizing that they communicate in a social context. Emphasis, as in your article, on the importance of ‘doing science’ is often a way of shutting down discussion between Social Sciences and other fields.

    I am sure we agree that research in Social Science must be developed through observation and supported by evidence. But the martinets of the scientific method do harm to their study by lending deaf ears to other methods of inquiry. A better approach to social science does not ignore others and does not presume that results of social scientific research will be comparable to the laws of Newton or Planck.

    • Ross: “no true experiment can be performed on a society. At best, we have ‘natural experiments’ which are presumed to isolate the effect of a treatment. Such results are often convincing (even actionable) but a far cry from physical truth.”

      Can one perform a “true experiment” by your standards on a star? A galaxy? The entire Universe? Yet astronomy is clearly a science that deals with “physical truth” in a very deep way.

      Geology is a physical science that can do small experiments on the properties of rocks, but has to content itself with “natural experiments” at the scale of plate tectonics.

      My own field, high-energy physics, is perhaps the most reductionist of the physical sciences, but even it fails to meet your standard because of reliance on “natural experiments”. We rely on observing (or not observing) events we cannot control nor create on our own, such as high-energy cosmic rays and the dark matter wind.

      Science, as it’s actually practiced, is about a relentless questioning as to whether our understanding is incorrect. Un-natural experiments are one way of doing that, but by far not the only one.

      I think it is possible for there to be real “social science”. I’ve seen people here at Berkeley work in the scientific, questioning approach that qualifies as science.

      I’ve also seen people who are interested more in advocacy, or in only looking for evidence that supports their position. Neither of those qualifies in science, at least in my opinion. But a few people who aren’t doing the science part of social science doesn’t take away from the people who are doing it right.

      Bob Jacobsen
      Professor of Physics, UC Berkeley

  2. While I agree with the over arching argument presented here, it does not acknowledge the issues of this perspective. The discussion around economics and the field’s obsession with the appearance of scientificy has been detremental to the field’s reputation and devastating to those found under it’s foot. While all sciences seem to appear some degree of physics envy, it is also important to note the progress made in fields as soon as they allowed them selves to step out of the confinements of “hard” science (albeit such progress should should be checked and verified when possible).

  3. While the author has a point overall, he’s leaving out a great deal of academic turf. As an archaeologist, I can’t imagine the modern American version being anything for the most part other than science. But for us the “are we doing science yet?” aficionados have dominated since the 1960s. Forensic or physical anthropologists have it even easier, but aren’t reckoned “social scientists” even though they usually academically bed down with the other anthropologists. Social anthropologists and linguists talk much about scientific methods and are slowly evolving in that direction.

    And I ask you, Dr. Newsome, if the study of man is not science, what is?

    • I don’t understand why you asked me this question. I did not make any comment on “the study of man” or anything else you list here. You seem to be thinking of a dispute about archaeology and/or anthropology that you have seen elsewhere. By any authority I know of, anthropology falls within the formal social sciences, so I am confused why you write that “anthropologists…aren’t reckoned social scientists.” In any case, your question was answered already by my explicit argument: one can’t claim to be a social scientist just by studying society; one is only a social scientist by applying science to the study of society. I don’t want anyone in particular to be a social scientist, I just would rather that anybody who calls themselves a social scientist actually uses science rather than pretends.

  4. Either we produce fast track solutions and implementations to eliminate our most destructive social problems, such as worldwide violence, inequalities and global warming, or we shall most certainly fail as a civilization.

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