“How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?” (New York Times, May 17, 2012),
philosopher Gary Gutting explains:
While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not. The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish and study separately. Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects. As a result, most social science research falls far short of the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments.
Without a strong track record of experiments leading to successful predictions, there is seldom a basis for taking social scientific results as definitive. Jim Manzi, in his recent book, “Uncontrolled,” offers a careful and informed survey of the problems of research in the social sciences and concludes that “nonexperimental social science is not capable of making useful, reliable and nonobvious predictions for the effects of most proposed policy interventions.”
Even if social science were able to greatly increase their use of randomized controlled experiments, Manzi’s judgment is that “it will not be able to adjudicate most policy debates.” Because of the many interrelated causes at work in social systems, many questions are simply “impervious to experimentation.” But even when we can get reliable experimental results, the causal complexity restricts us to “extremely conditional, statistical statements,” which severely limit the range of cases to which the results apply.
If social science were physics, many of us would be knocking around in a collider somewhere.
The fact that humans are irreducibly complex creates an insurmountable barrier to the complete understanding that social science’s “physics envy” seeks, and is, as James Barham has noted, a cause of rampant fudging of data.
See also: Memo to social sciences: Get over your physics envy. Please.
Philosopher: “Physics envy” is the heart ofthe widespread research cheating problem
In one study, half the scientists admitted to reporting only desired results