Some thoughts on the social sciences.


Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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53 Responses

  1. jeff says:

    Maybe theorizing has changed behavior in the physical sciences too – perhaps someone had a long long talk with those faster-than-light neutrinos.Report

  2. Ian M. says:

    The main difference between the physical and social sciences is that there is an actual real answer in the physical sciences. They have reproducibility and the ability to prove themselves at will. You get disagreement, and decades-long misunderstandings, but eventually there is physical reality arbiter. Economics and the other social sciences has nothing like that and they really have to stop pretending they do.Report

    • Murali in reply to Ian M. says:

      But surely there is a fact of the matter about how prices will respond to changes in the demand for a product. I get that there is a greater risk of interpreting transient characteristics as enduring ones as there are just a lot more transient chracteristics in the social sciences, but I dont see how you get from there to the fact that the social sciences do not refer to any underlying reality.Report

      • Ian M. in reply to Murali says:

        “I dont see how you get from there to the fact that the social sciences do not refer to any underlying reality.” You’re inferring where I’m not implying. Obviously events happened, which is why I liked history and got a degree in it. But history will not generate an answer the same way that X-ray crystallography will. Proteins have a structure – the same protein in a different lab years later will give the same structure.

        I would argue that in real economics (i.e. based on data from events) the number of unknown variables is going to go beyond the number of equations. In other words, it cannot be “solved” . You can make cogent observations about events, but in the end what exactly happened historically, or why exactly an economic event occurred is open to interpretation. So social scientists will always have room to carve out idiosyncratic interpretations. Thus, more disagreement.Report

    • kenB in reply to Ian M. says:

      They have reproducibility …

      I think this is the crux of the matter — where there is the possibility of repeatable controlled experiments, answers will be more definite. Not all questions in the physical sciences have this, and in those cases the mere fact that it’s in the domain of the physical sciences perhaps doesn’t mean very much.Report

  3. Kyle Cupp says:

    That sounds about right. I’d add that the social sciences involve interpretation and narrative to a much greater extent than the physical sciences.Report

  4. greginak says:

    I generally agree the use of experts in social sciences is limited. And i say that as somebody who testifies in court as an expert witness in a small area of social sciences. Human behavior is incredibly complex and opaque. I love astronomy, the things they know and discover is beyond stunning. But the complexity of human behavior makes the universe look like a tinker toy. There are also so many things that affect the observer that complicate our pronouncements. Humility is often my best tool.

    There are actual repeatable experiments in the social sciences. It isn’t all soft. However putting those experimental proven concepts into action isn’t always that easy.Report

  5. Chris says:

    I guess I’m wondering what you mean by “social sciences.” In some areas, the line between social and physical science gets pretty blurry (e.g., some areas of anthropology), and linguistics is a pretty hard science (even sociology, when certain types of computational models are involved). When it comes to social science, it’s good to take epistemological issues on a case by case basis.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to Chris says:

      I wonder if history counts as a social science. My girlfriend–she’s not a historian, but she dates a graduate history student–claims it’s a social science. I claim it’s a humanity.

      Still, part of historical research is deciphering what happened, using “primary” sources that in reality are already mediated through one (at least) observer before I get to them. So I have to deal with often competing narratives and fashion my own.

      But I still have a respect for something I call the “truth” and “objectivity,” even though I must eschew certainty. And truth and objectivity requires me to try to decide “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.”

      In a more direct answer to Murali, history, so it seems to me, depends on disagreement, on the competing narratives. Otherwise we just have chronology.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        depends. There’s the history that relies on numbers and economic policy (e.g. demonstrating the hoardingness of the Southern Aristos during the Civil War, which actively hurt their war effort).
        Then there’s the history that relies mostly on Significant People. That’s far more autobiographical, and far less scientific.
        To the effect that history can be used as something for the benefit of actual science, it gains credibility.

        *yawn* not sure this makes sense.

        History is the selection of important facts from a sea of them. The finding of turning points. But everyone still teaches about Gettysburg.Report

        • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kimmi says:

          That’s an interesting way to put it. A few years ago, the faculty at my university apparently voted on whether to call history a social science or a humanity (the vote had something to do with how they wanted the university to classify them for some administrative purpose), and the only pro-social science vote came from the lone economic historian in the department.

          I’m not sure I follow the assertion (if that is indeed what you intend to say) that history is only credible if it can be used as something for the benefit of actual science.

          I do agree that there are few, if any, obvious lessons we can learn from history: 1938 (Munich) was not 1964 (Vietnam) was not 2003 (Iraq). I’m not sure that’s a reason not to study–in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not a reason not to study it–but I have a hard time seeing what lessons we can learn from knowing, for example, that southern aristo’s hoarded or didn’t hoard money/food/clothing/fuel during the Civil War. (Even then, we’d have to address the interpretive issues of what, exactly, is hoarding and why our definition of hoarding is better than others’ and what, exactly, counts as “food”–does sugar count as food in the same way as, say, flour?)Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

            History Gains Credibility is not saying that it is not credible without science. Only that being able to cite bets on how far the iceberg makes it down the river as a way to track global warming makes history more credible.

            History is a humanity without a home, constantly fighting for ground with other disciplines. What part of history does not naturally fit better into Anthropology, Economics, Psychology, Sociology? The problem with history is that it is by definition a looking backward idea — and that’s actively wrong. The discipline should be about winnowing data, and finding coherent logical narratives, and generating predictions (best quote on history ever: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”). Arg. I am arguing against the definition of the field, not the field itself.

            From history, we learn the banality of greed. Of course, studying conmen would teach you the same thing.Report

            • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kimmi says:

              What part of history does not naturally fit better into Anthropology, Economics, Psychology, Sociology?

              My first inclination is to say “what part of anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology does not naturally fit better into History?” But I suppose that just reflects my disciplinarian chauvinism. 🙂Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                ya, my rant kinda morphed into something else midway through. History’s insights would be most valuable if it started replacing journalism, methinks. Lotta big things going down NOW, or in the recent past (within the past five years).Report

              • There’s been an internal argument among historical archaeologists in the United States as far back as 1948 (see Walter Taylor, A Study of Archeology) that the field should be placed under history departments, not anthropology.

                Also, my wife who is a social worker and has her undergrad in sociology would be the first to scratch her head at the prospect of sociology falling under history.Report

            • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kimmi says:

              “generating predictions”:

              Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in June and July of 1863 failed. Therefore, if he invades again in July and July of 1863, he will fail again.

              But more seriously, I think I get what you mean. I suppose one could say that the occupation of Vietnam didn’t work (or was way to hard and expensive to make work, based on what counted as America’s “national interest”), so why would an occupation of Iraq work or be easy or inexpensive?Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                the worst part about history is people’s ability to generate coherent narratives out of nothing.

                One can easily take the other side, and say Japan and Germany turned out fine after an American occupation.Report

              • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kimmi says:

                I agree about Germany and Japan, though the occupations weren’t inexpensive or necessarily easy.

                Still, your overall point is one I agree with entirely. We can,alas, pick and choose our examples to prove almost anything. That’s why I believe it’s hard to learn clear lessons from history.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                … sci fi friend of mine did some work on Civil War for the bicentenial.
                Said it was completely implausible that in 1900 there would be a Confederate States of America, even if Lee had won the war, which he was entirely illsuited to win.

                Meade could have won the war for the South, if not for the Southerners (whose morale would not have accepted the costs of meade’s way).Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I wonder if history counts as a social science.

        It isn’t. History is free to draw on the social sciences and use quantitative methods. For a lot of its work, it certainly should. But we recognize history by its narrative arc, a trait it shares with literature. All good history is factual; all great history tells a great story. History belongs with the humanities.Report

      • In the US history usually falls under the social sciences.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Not at the three universities I attended. I think we might quantify this, but I have a pretty busy day today…Report

          • Well in universities History usually just falls under Arts & Sciences. As a matter of who claims it I think both social scientists and humanities folks do. To be fair it’s probably both. I always thought of it as a social science because I was also working in the anthropology field (unquestionably a social science) and linking the two in my research.Report

        • For what it’s worth, and in a meta-sense, I classify the hard sciences, soft sciences, and non-sciences as “humanities,” part of one long cursum of thought and education. But if I insisted on that way of looking at things, wherein “humanities” includes practically everything, it would tell us nothing as a category, and I’d be stuck at square one.Report

          • Eh, those divisions are social constructions; best efforts at trying to make some distinctions that surely have some basis in reality but whose reality ultimately is not sharply distinct enough to provide a wholly logical support the sharp distinctions we normally have to make for administrative purposes.

            I think Mike is probably factually wrong, and that history is more often considered a humanity in American academia, but as a political scientist who is deeply grateful to historians for all the background work they do for me, I have little difficulty in viewing them as social scientists.

            Let’s not forget that the current trend of our use of the word “science” to mean a specific set of methodologies is at odds with its historical meaning of a body of knowledge, and is itself just a social construction. So how one answers the question reveals more about how one defines these things than it does about the field of history itself.Report

  6. Hipsterism is an interesting case study. Whatever is effectively marketed to the mainstream becomes shunned.Report

  7. James K says:

    For me, the biggest difference between the physical sciences and the social sciences is complexity. Consider that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist. Consider also that even small social groups consist of hundreds of the bloody things interacting in real time. Because the global economy is (for the most part) a single integrated entity, all seven billion brains on Earth come into the equation at some point.

    Still, both your points matter a lot too, especially the last one. The Efficient Market Hypothesis for example predicts that any model you use to predict the market will fail once it becomes publicly known as the market will incorporate all of the information inherent in the model, thus robbing it of predictive power.Report

  8. Burt Likko says:

    Obviously, when the subject matter expert reaches a conclusion that is congruent with my pre-established prejudices, that expert is reliable, has used sound and appropriate methodology, and can be reasonably trusted by non-experts.

    Equally obviously, when the expert reaches a conclusion that challenges what I already believe (or more accurately, what I want to believe) to be true, then that expert is at best deeply flawed in approach, possibly working with poorly-gathered or incomplete data, debatably under the subtle and insidious corruption of the funding underwriting her research, and in the worst of cases actively politicized and willing to prostitute her credential so as to realize victory.

    I mean, come on. This is basic stuff.Report

  9. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Both of those things are true with regard to the physical sciences as well, just to a different degree.

    Some phenomena in the physical sciences are extraordinarily susceptible to observation. This makes building reasonable descriptive and predictive theories relatively easy.

    Not very many phenomena in the social sciences are anywhere near as susceptible to observation. This makes building reasonable descriptive theories pretty difficult, let alone predictive ones.

    But the vast majority of phenomena in both kinds of science are hard to observe. The only real difference between the two categories is that in the physical sciences, we had a couple hundred years of people figuring out the easy stuff (things that can be measured with instruments that don’t require tolerances higher than human worksmanship). There was a lot of stuff to learn, but it prejudiced us into thinking everything was always going to be that easy.

    Turns out, Horatio, there are stranger things…Report

  10. Kimmi says:

    Man, psychology may be a bitch, but sociology is triply so.

    As with everything, the easy problems get solved first. Anyone can do a difference of gaussians, after all (and it’s relatively easy to show that’s how we see. Relatively.) I assume crowd behavior under panic conditions is relatively easy to model, as well. And relatively resistant to “I think, therefore I change”Report

  11. I’m repeating some of the broader points already made by other commenters but my opinion is that the social sciences are separated from the physical sciences by the variability of human behavior. Also, interpreting that behavior is an exercise in speculation, especially in fields where we are often studying not the people themselves but their footprint (history, cultural anthropology,archaeology).

    One good example would be the advent of processual archaeology and the use of functional group patterning in the course of archaeological analysis. It’s become increasingly apparent in the last 20 years or so that it doesn’t work because you simply can’t put the debris of a culture into neat little buckets and trying to do so will almost always skew your findings.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      The funny thing, Mike, is that human behavior isn’t really all that variable, especially when considered as group behavior.

      Most people spend most of their time doing basically the same stuff. Most groups of people spend most of their time doing basically the same stuff.

      The hard part is the exceptions to that rule, because there are so many contributing individual decisions that have to occur before a mass effect occurs.

      People are repressed in Egypt for years. Did they all really decide to take to the streets because Bouazizi set himself on fire? No, but some someones decided to take to the streets because Bouazizi set himself on fire. And because they took to the streets, others decided that taking to the streets was possible.

      Social sciences are most descriptive (and predictable) when they’re talking about the normal average behavior. They’re also, interestingly, most descriptive when they talk about how individuals respond to extreme events, because that stuff is fun to study. But it’s hard to bridge the gap. What makes group responses to extreme circumstances play out the way they do? Lots of chaos, really.

      This problem is an awful lot like QM and GR in physics, coincidentally.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        *yawn* greed is banal. so is human sexuality, though how we pervert it is endless.
        the similarity of people in extreme events is easy to model, because strong events elicit responses from our lizardbrain.

        “The sensuality of chocolate…” except it’s not about chocolate.

        Humans are at their most interesting when they think. But most behavior is predicated on not thinking.Report

      • Spend six weeks trying to decipher building footprints and complex stratigraphy in an urban archaeological site and then tell me human settlement is scientifically predictable.Report

  12. James Hanley says:


    As a social scientist I think there are areas of knowledge that are quite concrete and to be relied upon. This is the knowledge of such basic social interaction issues as coordination and collective-action problems, principal-agent problems, the difficulty of aggregating preferences, and the like (I’d hesitate to try to make an exhaustive and exclusive list). Those are unavoidable complications of sociality, so they will exist across time and space in ever social organization. Of course how they are dealt with (or not dealt with, as the case may be) is variable and ever-changing, but the existence and nature of the problems themselves are permanent.

    However it’s difficult to say that there is “massive agreement” among social scientists about the existence of these issues. Our fields are still somewhat backwards and not everyone is willing to accept the reality of these problems. They are much like biologists who refuse to accept the existence of DNA.Report