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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

Are Social Sciences real Sciences?

This post starts as a reflection of something a friend asked me some time ago. He had a discussion with a friend which told him that his Social Sciences knowledge was not real science and that social science didn't even follow the scientific method. My friend was livid and asked me about bibliography he could use to confront his friend. I didn't know of any, but I was very familiar with the issue, so it started a nice reflection.

As a person who studied Engineering and Psychology, I am very familiar with the division between 'hard sciences' and 'soft sciences'. Hard sciences, such as physics, chemistry, or biology can be mathematically modelled, predicted and simulated; they allow you to perform experiments changing one variable at the time while keeping everything else intact and allow you to replicate the same finding again and again.

Soft sciences, on the other hand, cannot be put on an equation, you cannot account for all variables, problems emerge all the time, they are impossible to predict in an accurate way, and many times manipulation of variables also involve some sort of harm to a person, so you cannot really manipulate things.

In sum, 'Hard sciences' are clean and sharp, while 'Soft sciences' are chaotic, with lots of emergent elements.

So, what is scientific and what is not? From a very reductionist point of view, science has to do with two things: Systematicity and the Scientific method. Systematicity in science means that the way you relate to your data, the way you gather your data, analyse it, and interpret it follows a clear pattern that can be documented and replicated. For example, gathering pollen samples from specific flower, or see how many Twitter post people from a particular city make in an hour.

Systematicity make the findings reliable, as we can see the road the scientist used for reaching a specific conclusion and can replicate it, know which variable we can change in order to understand more something, or if the findings will hold under different circumstances.

Now, the scientific method is a standard for systematicity. It was never a rule, but more a modern invention allowing scientists from different disciplines around the world follow the same steps so they could be even more systematic. The scientific method has basically 6 steps: 1) Observation of a phenomenon, 2) Hypothesis formulation, 3) Design of tools for testing the hypothesis, 4) Hypothesis testing, 5) Scrutinising the results, 6) Sharing the results.

These steps are very easy to follow when you are in a lab under a controlled environment and have all the tools required to test (or rather, falsify) your hypothesis. However, it gets messier when you take things outside the lab.

Now let's jump to another anecdote. My PhD was on the topic of Scientific Reasoning, and for obvious reasons many times the topic felt on the Scientific Method. Once I saw an amazing debate between these two high profile professors. The first one was advocating the existence of Scientific Reasoning in children because as a skill (not as a method, watch out for the difference) children can formulate hypothesis, test, communicate results, and even replicate and assess their findings. The second professor was arguing that this was not Scientific Reasoning, as 'real' scientific reasoning should be systematically documented in a lab. In other words, if you cannot fill the six-point-scientific-method-list with checkmarks you are not doing Scientific Reasoning but something else.

Does this sound familiar? If it does is because it is the same discussion my friend was having with his friend. One was saying that soft-Social Sciences are not science because you cannot fill in a check-list as you can with hard-Natural Sciences; my friend was saying that it didn't matter because what mattered was systematicity.

And the point is, both are somehow right.

The real problem with Social Sciences is that they were born very late and developed very quickly. In fact, they are so precocious that they started borrowing the clothes from their big brother (the hard sciences) despite the age differences. Ever since, Social Sciences (in order to call themselves a 'science') borrowed methods, designs, and techniques from the Natural Sciences, without realising that maybe these did not fit their object of study. Maybe they can account for a phenomenon into a certain extent, but they cannot do it into the extent Natural Sciences do. This is because their object of study is society: emergent, chaotic, messy, ever changing, and variable.

Nowadays we can find social scientists who want the Social Sciences to become hard science, and try by all means to mathematise human behaviour and create cultural predictions of how people will react to a certain phenomena and how society can shift though time given certain conditions. At the other side of the spectrum we can find those who acknowledge the complex nature of their object of study and humbly try to document, understand, and explain what they see in specific situations.

Just so you know, I am not for one approach or the other, I think both can complement each other very well (depending on the phenomenon analysed, of course). However, I am totally of the idea that Social Sciences can benefit more from exploring and developing their own methods to explore their own object of study than from borrowing methods from disciplines which objects of study are so dissimilar. Therefore, I encourage exploration in the social sciences, as long as systematicity is maintained.

So, are Social Sciences a science? I would say yes, as they are systematic. Maybe they do not work very well with checklists, but their object of study is not fit for checklists. And they are sciences even though they don't really fit the mathematical models from the Natural Sciences.

But I must add, from a personal perspective, that I wish they were not a science. Maybe then social scientists would try to understand more their object of study and creating their own methods fitting the phenomena they study, instead of trying to make them fit a linear equation.

Now, why you as a Biologist, Physicist, Engineer, or natural scientist would start writing to your social scientist friends that what they are doing is not science and what you do is? The answer is simple, it's because you are a snobbish ass that wants to feel superior by belittling others and their knowledge. Please don't be like that!

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