Reasonable Words: The War on Social Science

From a new (to me at least) web journal on academe called Symposium Magazine, Rick Wilson, a former National Science Foundation dissects some of Congress’ ire towards the social sciences.

From the piece:

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Auguste Comte, termed by many the father of sociology, and likely an unsuccessful NSF grantee were he alive today.

Many members of Congress still understand the importance of basic research. But more and more are questioning which sciences are legitimate, and the social sciences are a tempting target. It is difficult to predict spinoffs from basic social science research. After all, the social sciences do not produce patents; they seldom produce widgets; and the object of study is not about manipulating the physical world. Instead, social scientists study humans and their interactions. This has prompted lawmakers to question whether the social sciences are even a science. They assume that their experience gives them a “commonsense” understanding of the political world that is far more astute than the analysis of political scientists. In this view, pundits and polls are all it takes to elaborate on what everyone commonly knows.

The hallmark of science, however, is the systematic and rigorous investigation of phenomena. Social scientists observe patterns in the world, formulate theories that explain the underlying mechanisms for those patterns, and then proceed to systematically test those theories. The theories come in all varieties, ranging from detailed descriptions of a social phenomenon to abstract mathematical models that strip away the rich context of the social environment to focus on a specific mechanism. These studies show that many “commonsense” understandings of the social world are, in fact, incorrect. Yet lawmakers still continue to pursue policy solutions based on opinion rather than fact.

I suppose we could elect scientifically literate legislators, but that’s crazy talk. Wilson’s piece is long, but worth reading.


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