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Memo to social sciences: Get over your physics envy. Please.

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In “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy’”(New York Times, March 30, 2012), Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo comment that social sciences should just get over trying to be like physics because, surprise, surprise, research designs based on irrelevant models hamper research:

For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.

The ideal of hypothetico-deductivism is flawed for many reasons. For one thing, it’s not even a good description of how the “hard” sciences work. It’s a high school textbook version of science, with everything messy and chaotic about scientific inquiry safely ignored.

The problem is that fruitful social science may come from theory only, if it turns out to be a reliable guide over the years, even when not tested by the theorist. Similarly, social science research can make valid predictions based on masses of data without developing a theory:

Did the welfare reform championed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s reduce poverty? Are teenage employees adversely affected by increases in the minimum wage? Do voter identification laws disproportionately reduce turnout among the poor and minorities? Answering such questions about the effects of public policies does not require sweeping theoretical claims, just careful attention to the data.

Yes, and the mess social sciences are in is not driven by their failure to be physics, it is driven by the infestation of people with frankly and obviously political aims. People who are interested in neither theory nor evidence, but in getting the ear of government. Fixing that is hardly the task for a semester –  but that is where the bar is set.

From Clarke and Primo:

Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.

Thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do?:  See, for example, Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.  Compare it to anything we might read from, say, “evolutionary psychology,” whose attempts to look like biology are – at best – embarrassing.

One Reply to “Memo to social sciences: Get over your physics envy. Please.

  1. 1
    GilDodgen says:

    “Political science” used to be known as “government.”

    Academicians involved in psychology, sociology, government, and other such purely speculative, mushy academic enterprises couldn’t take the fact that they were second-rate, so they artificially attached “science” and “Darwinian” to their names in an attempt to appropriate the rigor associated with the hard sciences like mathematics, engineering, chemistry, and classical physics.

    Of course, there was never anything remotely approaching legitimate scientific rigor in any of those “social-science” anti-disciplines, which have always been characterized by ever-changing unsupported speculation, depending upon the philosophical fashion of the day.

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