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Failing to Understand the Social Sciences

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Gary Gutting's recent piece in the New York Times "Opinionator" blog ("How Reliable are the Social Sciences?" May 17th, 2012) argues that fields such as economics, psychology, and sociology (1) fail to contribute "real" data of the kind produced by the natural sciences, (2) explain information that already exists, but provide no power to predict what will occur in the future, and (3) cannot provide any information of value in guiding public policy. These are serious charges that summarily dismiss the work of thousands of scientists. As such, it is critical to point out that Gutting's position is baseless and hostile to scientific progress.

Gutting suggests that social scientists employ the "paraphernalia" of science -- such as the technical terminology and statistical tests -- but do not apply these techniques to producing systematic, reliable data. Instead, Gutting focuses on small, exploratory studies, concluding that social sciences suffer from a pervasive case of "severely limited reliability." This claim is empty and irresponsible. Gutting is, of course, correct that policy should not be based on unreliable data, and that the press often 'overhypes' preliminary scientific findings. However, this problem is in no way unique to social sciences, which commonly produce robust, consistent effects that hold across hundreds of studies conducted and several decades.

Consider a recent "meta-analysis" (an aggregation of multiple studies, here including data from over 300,000 people) in which psychologists found that social isolation strongly predicts mortality -- at a level on par with other risks factors such as smoking and obesity. These findings easily meet the criteria that Gutting sets for meaningful data: they (1) are consistent and robust, (2) strongly predict that social isolation in new populations should similarly produce mortality risk, and (3) hold clear implications for policy. Physicians have long discounted the effects of social phenomena in predicting physical health, instead focusing on more "tangible" risk factors. Findings from psychology here demonstrate that this dualistic view is outdated, and suggest course corrections in medicine and public health.

More broadly, Gutting succumbs to an old stereotype: believing that there is a bright line between "hard" natural sciences -- which produce real information -- and "soft" social sciences, which do not. Such arguments reveal a misunderstanding of science's increasingly integrated nature. For example, in recent years, entirely new fields have spawned from collaborations between theoretical physics and sociology and between neurobiology and psychology.

Gutting's bias is common among individuals who practice neither social nor natural sciences, and thus fail to note the central commonalities between them. Nonetheless, Gutting and others should take the time to recognize the deepening intermingling between sciences across the spectrum.

One real difference between natural and social sciences is their age. Whereas astronomy has been practiced for millennia, social sciences are much younger. Critically, young sciences often push new boundaries by systematically exploring complex phenomena (here, human behavior) for the first time. At many times in history, detractors have suggested that because it is not immediately obvious how to apply science to these domains, attempts to do so are hopeless by definition. This position is hostile to scientific progress, but more importantly, it is almost always wrong. Instead of casting aspersions on the social sciences, Gutting and others should take a more balanced approach: understanding the current limits of these young fields while also acknowledging their impressive progress and future potential.