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Saving Social Science

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Social science is yet again the target of widespread and sustained attack. In my more than 30 years as a social scientist, I've witnessed -- and received -- a good deal of well-intentioned and astute criticism. Such criticism, of course, makes for more insightful thought and for perceptive writing about all things social. In the past several months, however, the critiques, which have not always been well intentioned, have questioned the very relevance of the social sciences, which are seen either as a waste of time or as unreliable science.

In a previous post I discussed Frank Bruni's recent New York Times column in which he dismissed the utility of studying anthropology, sociology, philosophy and art history. In this post, I consider Gary Gutting's New York Times piece, "How Reliable are the Social Sciences?"

Professor Gutting's critique centers on the incapacity of social science to make predictions about human behavior of social policy.

The case for a negative answer lies in the predictive power of the core natural sciences compared with even the most highly developed social sciences. Social sciences may be surrounded by the 'paraphernalia" of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data and even carefully designed experiments. But when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events. We may have a theory that explains all the known data, but that may be just the result of our having fitted the theory to that data. The strongest support for theory comes from its ability to correctly predict data that it was not designed to explain.

Professor Gutting goes on the suggest that although core physical science produces "many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not." Although Professor Gutting does not want to completely gut the social sciences, he sees them as peripheral to the construction of "real" scientific knowledge, the predictability of which, in his view, should be used to set social policy.

In Professor Gutting's view, the only hope for the social sciences is to increase their "use of randomized controlled experiments," which, he admits, "are seldom possible when people are involved." In this Catch-22 context, social scientific research is tolerable if you take into consideration its "limited predictive success and its lack of consensus." Such an argument of impossibility clearly downplays the importance and the relevance of the social sciences and the humanities.

Can you really predict economic behavior?

Can you really predict social behavior?

Can you design a controlled random experiment of a spirit possession ceremony involving a large cast of dancers, musicians, praise-singers and mediums, who enter altered states of consciousness?

There are fundamental differences between the behavior of people, who are complex sentient beings and the "behavior" of non-sentient beings. There are phenomena in the world, as many anthropologists will attest, that are irreducible. Indeed, there are social scientists and scholars in the humanities -- myself included -- who want to embrace the complexities of social worlds rather than reduce them to "experimental data."

If Professor Gutting's argument were purely academic, it would be stimulating to discuss its multiple ramifications. But the argument can also be used to isolate, if not downgrade, the social sciences in our colleges and universities. At my university the administration has drafted a strategic plan -- usually a blueprint of what to expand and contract in an institution. In that draft document, the institutional future appears to center on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Administrators and budget-conscious politicians like STEM; it is the future and it will provide training that is likely to result in good 21st century jobs. In the same draft document, the social sciences are seen as disciplines in support of the university's mission. As for the beleaguered humanities, they are considered disciplines that "enrich" the university's mission. So if the social sciences and humanities are supportive and/or enriching, but not part of an institutional core, it is easy to make a case to reduce or eliminate those programs -- especially in times of fiscal austerity.

It goes without saying that STEM is important in the future of higher education, but so are the social sciences and humanities which teach students how to think critically and to how assess the social and cultural ramifications of rapid technological change. It is shortsighted to advocate scientific and technological literacy at the expense of social and cultural literacy. It is foolish to train an army of narrow-minded technocrats who are insensitive to the complex nuances of social and cultural life. It is irresponsible to side step social science research in the formulation of productive social policies that are designed to improve our ever-increasingly complex social lives.

In short, we need strategic plans that support rather than undermine the social sciences and humanities. Having poorly balanced universities that are focused squarely on STEM will have, I'm afraid, a drastic impact on the quality of American social and cultural life.