Skip to content

Is Social Science an Oxymoron?

Believe it or not, this post continues with my theme of Cartesian America. As I explained, the Cartesian/Lockean American understands science basically to be technology.  Its point is to make free persons more secure, comfortable, and “autonomous” in their natural environment.  That means, of course, that science is all about understanding, predicting, controlling, and transforming bodies or “natural resources.”  Science is about making our country and our species more powerful or productive. 

Science, so understood, is all about medical, engineering, commercial, communications, and military applications.  It is most of all about inventions.  Because we consent to government to get our rights—particularly life and liberty—secured better than they are by nature, we naturally expect government to devote lots of its resources to facilitating technological progress.  That can explain why every major scientific and engineering project in recent decades has been supported by the National Science Foundation.

It’s true that some of that money goes to scientific theory with no obvious practical applications—to highly abstract and even speculative math and physics, for example.  Our friendly French critic Tocqueville help us understand why the Foundation has been correcting a democratic prejudice for our own good.  Democrats have a skeptical prejudice against pure theory.  One reason is that they—being too busy to have appreciated the truthful joy of theoretical insight for themselves—don’t “get” the necessary connections between theoretical breakthroughs and technological progress.  Theory is more practical than we think it is, just as practice—technology—is more theoretical than we think it is.  So Tocquevile concludes it’s more important than ever to talk up the leisurely and high-minded enjoyments of theoretical inquiry of all kinds in democratic times.

Partly because of the great authority quantitative (or demonstrably poductive) science enjoys in our time, the social sciences (political science, sociology, economics, and so forth) have tried to establish credibility by configuring themselves along the methodological lines developed by the natural sciences.  Truth is identified with what can be precisely measured.  All else is “values” or ideology.

Many social scientists have been successful in getting the National Scientific Foundation to fund their work as science.

Members of Congress think the NSF has been suckered.  Social science—especially political science—is ideology masquerading as science.  The studies are “cooked” to produce results that conform to the controverisal opinions of the investigators.  Nobody would say that a biologist studying fruit flies or a physicist studying particles or an engineer building bridges has been distorted by such bias.  Members of Congress may be weak on science, but they know politics or partisanship when they see it.  And they know it ain’t science.  Most social science is liberal propaganda.  We note that there’s the occasional social scientist, such as Jonathan Haidt, who agees.

Here’s a nerdy physicist who agrees.  In his opinion, the progress of science on which we all so depend is based on a measurable, peer-driven rigor that’s just not found in the social sciences.  So the physicist agrees with the Republican Congressman that social science ain’t science.

Everyone knows that “real scientists” are very unimpressed with the level of mathematical sophistication of social science.  From the point of view of the physicist, the sociologist  is way too easy on herself as a scientist.  My highly nerdy and very liberal University of Chicago math professor brother and me agree on one thing: the status of the mathematics of most social science.

Following Aristotle, my own view is that political science rightly understood is less precise but far more difficult than at least most natural science.  Medicine, he says, deals with bodies and has the uncontroversial goal of health.  Political science deals with the soul, the reality and true content of which is much more controversial.  (By soul, in this case, Aristotle means no more than what animates human thought and action.)  The soul, we naturally think, is higher than the body, and anyone with eyes to see knows that the soul can’t be reduced to the body, that human action is much more fundamentally different from that of bees and ants than, say, E.O. Wilson thinks.

The political scientst is particularly concerned with moral virtue or ethics.  Moral or ethical distinctions really exist, but they are particularly hard to see.  One error is to think of them, Aristotle explains, as mere “rhetoric” or persuasive baloney spewed out by the clever as an instrument of domination. That error emerges as the result of another one—thinking of the only standard of truth as mathematical precision.  The world of praise and blame, virtue and vice exists somewhere between the extremes of mathematics and rhetoric.  Seeing that world requires not only theoretical insight but the judgment and chastened expectations that come through practical experience.

The political scientist such as myself notices that natural or “cognitive” scientists—such was E.O. Wilson or Dawkins or Dennett—know a lot less than they think they do when they write about what people think and do.  They’re no match for Aristotle, for example, when it comes to politics and ethics, although they most likely have far surpassed him in physics.  If science is nothing more than knowledge of the way things really are, then we shouldn’t look to physicists to know who we are and what we’re supposed to do. They’re no experts when it comes to political science.  That might be one reason why conservatives balk at deferring to the authority scientists so often claim for themselves.

But all this is a diversion from my conclusion: Whatever the scientific status of social science, it is not a reliable source of the scientific knowledge that produces the technological progress on which we Cartesian Americans depend.  In this time of burgeoning deficit and all that, I see no reason for the NSF not be commanded to cut at least most social science off.

I might be accused of being a traitor to my discipline.  Or it my be my perverse self-interest that’s driving my analysis: I’m not the kind of political scientist who could ever hope to get a dime from the NSF.


Up Next
Anxiety Creates Extra Tasks – And Problems Have you ever had one of those ‘super-productive’ days where you burn through all of your tasks and then feel… strangely hollow? This […]