Science is Science

Tonight, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman enter its 7th season. According the advertisements, it plans to take a different tack from previous seasons; this season promises to focus on social issues such as gun violence, the gender spectrum, and terrorism. I can’t review the season at this time since the episodes have not aired, so I cannot make a statement on the goodness or badness of them. What I am heartened by though is the treatment of social science and other social issues as…well, science. Too often, many people including and especially other scientists deride social science as not really being science. They claim its soft, lacks rigour, is more about feelings and emotions than rationality. Gender and Women’s Studies is mocked and derided as lacking intellectually capacity. And that really gets to me.

Firstly, there’s an element of privilege going on here. Women, people of color, and other minorities tend to gravitate towards these sciences instead of the natural sciences as their lives are significantly much more affected by the social order than people with privilege. Somehow, only true science is done by straight white men in tenured professorships and those that don’t fit the persona are not really doing science. Because social scientists often (but not always) expose the flaws of the current social order, challenge our assumptions of fairness, they are often on the forefront of attacking and breaking down the unfair privileges which some people enjoy and would like to keep. So they attack social science as a way to maintain and reinforce their position.

Secondly, there’s also a culture of science. Even if one doesn’t expect a scientist to be a straight white male in tenured professorship, one could still assume how scientists think. Science must be math-based and founded in abstraction. It must have a strong theoretical foundation which is predictive. There need to be highly controlled experiments to test hypotheses develop theories. Science is hard, non-science is soft. The problem with that is you are expecting science to be physics and not all science is physics. Physics, admittedly, is probably the most ‘far along’ science. But that’s because it is so easy, not because it is hard. When Galileo was watching cannonballs roll down slopes, he could get an degree of precision that cannot be gotten with humans. He could let cannonballs of specific weights from down a slope of the same height and angle with the same gravitational force a hundred times over to get the same precise results. If gravity were constantly in flux or heights and angles changed as the balls rolled down, learning about free fall motion would have been nigh impossible and we may as of yet still not have discovered the laws of gravity. Furthermore, the mathematics of physics is the easy math; mathematics of biology and sociology is much harder (look up the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics). Yes, often times it is much better to work with highly controlled experiments which can either claim truth or lay waste to your hypotheses. Predictions and experiments are very nice but observations and descriptions, even simple ones, are what really drive science. Before formulating a hypothesis on how the world works, you first need a picture of the world, a description generated from a set of observations.  To know the process, you first must obtain the pattern. Simply because a field of science doesn’t look like yours due to different needs doesn’t mean its not science.

Two events made me realize the social science was science. I took economics as a minor in college. When I sat in my macroeconomics class and the professor got to IS-LM and Aggregate Demand-Aggregate Supply, I was amazed. The simplicity that such a model yielded to explain the economies of countries and how well it worked especially during this past global recession reminded me of my evolution class. In that class, I marveled at the simplicity of how four postulates — variation, heritability, fitness, gradient — could explain the diversity of life on Earth. And here, a model simple like Darwin’s could explain the complexity of the economics of a country. It was like economics was a science. The second event happened when I first started graduate school. We had to take a mandatory course where we learned about ecology and all the stuff being done in the lab. Before that though, we learned a bit about ecological science and science in general. And one thing I remember was what a grad student (filling in for his professor who was teaching the course) said to us. He said we should look to sociology for learning and gathering useful statistical tools due to how sophisticated they were. There, I realized that sociology and ecology overlap. Both are highly descriptive sciences without a strong degree of theoretical background or predictive capability. And if I were to say ecology was science, then sociology had to be one as well. At that point, I realized sociology was a science and I should treat their findings like the findings of people in the natural sciences.

And this is why I’m glad TWH is tackling sociological issues. Sociology is a science and needs to be treated a such. In fact, it may be the most critical science to human welfare since it can tell us give us the direct tools to make a society that works for all people. Are their failures of sociology as currently practiced?  Yeah, of course. Politics and ideology can hugely bias studies and results. But bias creeps up in all sciences, even physics. Can sociologists be too stuck on description, not enough on prediction or theoretical foundations? Yeah but that exists in ecology as well. Is there an aversion to non-statistical mathematics? Sure but once again see ecology. Even with these problems though, sociology should not be discarded as a science. Instead, it should be whole-heartedly claimed as a science so that it can be made better. After all, how can we make a field into a better science if we don’t claim it as science at all.

By thetweedybiologist

Research of theoretical ecology and evolution

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