The denigration of social sciences (as an emerging online phenomenon)

It’s very strange to keep running into people speaking and writing dismissively about the social sciences, categorically, lumping all so-called “social sciences” together as though there are no distinctions and no real value to be found among any of its social theories and research. While I understand those who speak the worst of “the social sciences” are typically those with very limited and superficial exposure to such fields of study, perhaps having once attended a sociology course or gender studies course taught by a professor who rubbed them the wrong way; there’s a great deal more that falls under the heading of “social sciences” than many seem to realize.

  • Anthropology
  • History
  • Criminology
  • Political Science
  • Economics & Business studies
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Communications & Linguistics
  • Social Work
  • Urban Development studies
  • Public Administration

Etc. Law intersects with the social sciences realm even. As does Geography in terms of human migration and settling. And that’s certainly not all. So to dismiss this vast array of fields as though they, and any college majors therein, are useless strikes me as beyond ridiculous. Humans wish to understand ourselves, one another, our environments and histories, and how all are interrelated and impacted in myriad ways. To view such endeavors as folly simply because one can’t imagine most who go down that route of study will turn out highly profitable still doesn’t negate the value such research has added to our lives in countless ways, not to mention how such information plays into developments and innovations within other fields.

Makes me wonder where others are getting their information from that so many are now out wandering around online talking trash about “social sciences” in general. Were they raised by parents like my own who openly disdained sociology majors because they saw no money in going that route? I suppose if making money is your primary objective you might look elsewhere when choosing a college major, but income potential alone isn’t the sole determinant of the value of an entire network of fields of study.

Is it because students today are brought up on a STEM kick? And has that morphed into them thinking only those fields specifically are the ones worth pursuing any longer?

I’ll assume it’s mostly to do with naivety and a lack of deep exposure, and in saying that I am NOT defending every social theory taught therein. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that the social sciences realm is purely the terrain of Political Leftists and Feminists and should be left alone by all others, lest they wind up recruited. I’m not a Leftist and yet still headed down that path of study and remain just as libertarian as I ever was. Ceased identifying myself as a feminist while in college, and it wasn’t college that turned me on to feminism in the first place.

People like to say nowadays these fields of study are pointless, a waste of time and money, impractical, too theoretical without enough concrete backing (and on that last point there is a bit of truth, though one could argue the same thing about Philosophy and Religious studies). These are inquiries into humanity and our social institutions as they’ve been developed over time, how our places of business are organized, how our societies and forms of governments have been arranged, how our laws have been utilized in practice, how our minds function and our decisions are influenced, etc., etc.

Guess I just don’t understand the need for disparagement of a wide array of fields as if they have brought nothing to the table. Even the field of Sociology is far more complex than most seem to recognize. It’s opened up countless questions about why we humans do as we do, or did as we did, and whether there are other ways to manage life beyond what popular traditions and religions sanctioned as proper in any given era. Maybe people feel threatened by all the rapid changes of the last century or two and worry that opening up such inquiries is what unsettled the stability they’re nostalgic for. But that illusion of past stability isn’t wholly accurate either, and the changes we face now are arguably more the result of massive technological and industrial shifts over that same period of time. To generically blame “social sciences” for mucking up the status quo is tantamount to blaming the invention of the computer or television for doing so, or industrial-scale farming that shut down smaller family farm operations and drove people from their rural roots to urban cities in search of jobs, or the countless ways the economy has been altered and expanded throughout the last century. We certainly aren’t living within a vacuum here.

I will say this — perhaps it would be easier for people to accept these fields of study were they not referred to as “sciences.” That term alone seems to raise some ire, and I can understand why. Personally speaking, it wouldn’t bug me if “social sciences” were referred to instead as “social studies” since that’s a bit more accurate and less likely to trip people up in the common quibbles over the language usage.

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5 Responses to The denigration of social sciences (as an emerging online phenomenon)

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Well, people do tend to simplify the world (for exactly the reason from the last post — information overload) and then adopt simple positions based on simple reasoning.

    There are (at least) two big considerations here:

    Firstly, science is done by scientists, which is to say humans. And sometimes humans act contrary to fact, contrary to law, contrary to practice, contrary to common sense. As with cops, it doesn’t take too many bad apples to make people suspicious of the barrel.

    The thing about many social — or so-called “soft” — sciences is that, more than the physical — “hard” — sciences, they lend themselves to, shall we say, “adjusted results.” In some fields especially, it’s fairly easy to be an outright fraud successfully for a long time.

    Secondly, the reason soft sciences are easier to fake, misrepresent, or just get wrong, is that the hard sciences are generally easier. The formulas describing physics are surprisingly simple. They encode a lot, and it takes a lot of background to fully understand them, but many equations from the soft sciences are vastly more complex or even totally unknown.

    What makes most soft sciences “soft” is that they deal with huge numbers of parameters and variables. In science, a “degree of freedom” refers to a parameter that can vary without affecting others. As a simple example, up-down (“Z-axis”) is a degree of freedom, because your height does not affect your north-south (“Y-axis”) or east-west (“X-axis”) parameters. Likewise, north-south and east-west are degrees of freedom (in physical space).

    Soft sciences tend to deal with vast numbers of independent degrees of freedom. Anything dealing with “people in the USA” has — at least — 310+ million, and each of them may have many degrees of freedom representing, say, different opinions or habits.

    On top of that, the parameters themselves can be complex. How exactly do you quantify opinion? Yes-no? One-through-ten? Hot-medium-cold? Consider the difference between measuring how much people like Clinton or Trump versus measuring how much they dislike them.

    The questions asked matter, how they’re answered matters, probably the order they’re asked does, and maybe the time of day or how hungry the test subject is matters. Chaos math (a nice, easy hard science) tells us that the smallest differences matter in complex situations. The butterfly-hurricane thing.

    So, even using best practices, even on the totally straight and level, it’s really hard to get meaningful, consistent, accurate results in some areas. It’s like predicting the weather. We can do a good job, sort of, for 24 hours, but the further out, the worse the prediction becomes. Social analysis has similar issues. Simple analysis (the equivalent of 24-hour weather) can be accurate-ish, but complex analysis may amount to little more than a guess based on current data and methods.

    Combine the inherent fuzziness of best practice soft science (along with some interesting fails over the years) with a higher proportion of frauds, and you can see where the disdain comes from.

    The irony is that “science” is an important concept, so I’d disagree about “social studies” (which is a class I took in grade school). 😉

    “Science” simply means “(methodical) study of the (physical) world.”

    That method, which lies at the heart of all science, has proven enormously effective. Because of it, science proceeds despite scientists. 🙂

    • Byenia says:

      Nice elaboration. 😉

      Though, in terms of “social studies” vs. “social sciences” I must disagree. This is something that has bothered me as well for years, though I too took classes called “social studies” in K-11 that pertained specifically to history and didn’t delve into the rest much. Still it seems that we need some sort of clearer way to delineate the inherent messiness and confusion that can’t help but come along with studying the social realm versus the applicably easier “harder” sciences. You’re absolutely right that what’s being studied on the social realm is infinitely more complex due to unforeseen and unimaginable variables that impact each individual in countless and unpredictable ways. And that is the beauty of this field of research that I love so much, frustrating as it can’t help but be. There are no definitive answers here, only conjecture and assumptions and retrospective analyses that vary in terms of relevancy and accuracy on any given topic or conundrum in question.

      Man, I cannot help but adore the uncertainty of this shit! 🙂 And it’s for that reason that I also can’t help but get irritated with how social sciences tend to be portrayed these days in public venues. But, at the same time, i do also get it. This stuff doesn’t lend itself well to concise scientific analysis. Just doesn’t and can’t, much as some struggle to prove otherwise, and despite the gains accumulated through these fields of research and endeavor. I can totally see it from both sides of the aisle and sympathize in all directions. And yet…here we are, regardless. Such is life. No one promised us this shit would be easy to decipher, no matter what technologies we may bring on board. Some stuff isn’t easily predicted or answerable in the ways we might wish. Paradoxes remain a fact of life, which can be made no more clear than through examination of the social sciences realm of study.

      But science? Hmmm….scientific instruments and tactics have been utilized, and scientific rigor certainly can and does play a part, BUT…where does one draw the line? I almost wish to be referred to as “social studies” so as to free up more room and options to play with ideas and data so as not to be held to such a strict “scientific” standard so that we don’t feel stifled to explore and envision and struggle to comprehend in whatever manners we need to. And then the public can judge the results however it sees fit, as it will do anyhow.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        WARNING! This is a potentially dangerous conversation, because [a] views of science are a hot button of mine, and [b] this is a rare area where we muchly don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. What’s ironic is that, as someone whose studied science all my life, and would have been a scientist had I not gotten into the arts, I’m reacting to your view in a way that’s similar to how you are reacting to the views of others. The similar part is the sense of, “Wow, they’re really not seeing this clearly.” (Of course, that could also be the sense of, “Wow, they’re really not seeing this my way!” so there is that caveat!)

        It’s possible that what’s really underlying your view is a rejection of scientism (the idea that scientific — especially numeric — analysis is the end-all, be-all), and on that we tend more to share a view. There’s a bit of irony in that, ultimately, I think what you really want is more real science rather than the scientism.

        “Still it seems that we need some sort of clearer way to delineate the inherent messiness and confusion…”

        We need a clean way to delineate messiness? 😀

        Two objections: Firstly, that same fuzziness exists in hard sciences — weather systems, for example, are just as intractable. There really isn’t any clear place to draw such a distinction. Secondly, why? Words don’t help as much as we might hope. For example, removing racist and sexist words from polite discussion hasn’t removed racisim or sexism, just forced it to be encoded or hidden behind closed doors. People have the opinions they have regardless of the labels we use.

        There is also that “study” sort of takes it in the other direction. Generally, we “study” subjects that are known and understood — typically presented by teachers or texts. Students study (the words are obviously related).

        Scientists research using methods that have proven trustworthy. (The terms do get conflated in the sense that scientists “study” the unknown, but research is different than study in this sense.)

        “There are no definitive answers here, only conjecture and assumptions and retrospective analyses that vary in terms of relevancy and accuracy…”

        It isn’t really that the answers we find are so wrong, but that (as most people intuit as self-evident) “one size doesn’t fit all.” That’s the big gotcha with so much of this social stuff. The answer is perfectly fine… for some people, even most people, even (sometimes) nearly all the people… but really almost never for everyone. (As a life-long dedicated and deliberate outlier, they rarely apply to me, for example!)

        There’s an analogy with all those “success” books people write. They describe how that person happened to obtain success — a process that actually requires a big element of luck. The presumption that the same path works for others is generally false. Such books only help the writer succeed. Everyone’s path is a little bit different (although many paths are very similar).

        “Paradoxes remain a fact of life, which can be made no more clear than through examination of the social sciences realm of study.”

        Paradoxes are often only apparent; scientific analysis resolves them. The paradox that “standing is more tiring than walking” resolves in an analysis of what’s involved in those actions. Or we think it’s “paradoxical” to both love and hate someone or something, but there’s nothing actually contradictory about mixed feelings. Love does not exclude hate — they’re really not even opposites.

        As a general rule, real paradoxes — physical contradictions — don’t exist in the physical world. They can’t! It can never be factually true that 1=2. In science, real paradoxes are often used to show that the initial assumptions must be false. For example, the “Grandfather Paradox” is one proof that time travel must be impossible.

        It’s useful since a big part of science is the falsification of ideas — ideas that can then be discarded as wrong. It’s often extremely hard to prove something is true (which makes it hard for social sciences seeking to find truths), so science is more based on proving things false. An idea that is never proved false eventually becomes a contingent truth (contingent on no future experiment proving it false). But you can also see how this makes social sciences harder since society tends to change over time — a moving target is harder to hit!

        “But science? Hmmm….scientific instruments and tactics have been utilized, and scientific rigor certainly can and does play a part, BUT…where does one draw the line? I almost wish to be referred to as “social studies” so as to free up more room and options to play with ideas and data so as not to be held to such a strict ‘scientific’ standard so that we don’t feel stifled to explore and envision and struggle to comprehend in whatever manners we need to. And then the public can judge the results however it sees fit, as it will do anyhow.”

        This lies at the heart of the difference in our views here!

        What it seems like from where I sit is that you want it both ways. You want others to acknowledge the legitimate factual basis of the soft sciences, but you don’t fully embrace the even more factual basis of the hard sciences that underpin them all.

        That scientific rigor is what gives ideas credence and weight. Without that rigor, it’s art or literature or someone’s bat-shit crazy ideas. Humans have always been free to explore various frontiers, be they philosophical, artistic, literate, scientific, or even bat-shit crazy ideas.

        That scientific rigor is nothing more than saying: If you claim your idea is factual in the real world, then it must stand up to not being contradicted by established physical facts.

        Creationism, for example, or astrology, for another, assert things that are contradicted by measured physical facts. Creationism and astrology, therefore, make nice stories or parables or mythology, but they cannot claim to be physical truth. They cannot claim to be science, because science involves physical truth.

        As a counter-example, a belief in some sort of God, Maker of All, isn’t contradicted by physical fact, so faith is still a “scientific” option (as much as that drives atheists crazy, ha!).

        (As such, some forms of Intelligent Design are still possible truths. Atheists point out that complexity “naturally” arises from simple rules and interactions. To which I reply, “Yeah, but who made the universe such that it works that way, eh boyo?”)

        Science does not stifle unless you consider being restricted to the real world is stifling. Do baseball or traffic rules stifle, or do they introduce consistency and order? If, in baseball, some players used football rules, some used tennis rules, some made up rules on the spot or played by no rules, what kind of baseball game would result? What happens if everyone makes up their own traffic rules?

        Scientific methods have proven effectiveness (as demonstrated by the very way we’re communicating here) and, at their heart, simply say: Don’t let your physical world ideas contradict the physical facts.

        But as I said at the top, perhaps what you’re really yearning for is more real science understanding when it comes to social sciences? The reductive view — scientism — is, I agree, badly off the mark.

        • Byenia says:

          Scientism is certainly an issue that factors in here. But that’s not all there is to it.

          In using the term “studies” instead of “science” in this application in the social realm underscores how there is a very open-ended exploration occurring that then culminates in the formation of social theories, many of which aren’t falsifiable by their very natures. Or they represent a snapshot of a particular time period, not typically reflective of some universal truth among the masses. And they are subjectively assessed based on whatever new norms color the society conducting the research. Since we humans are always interacting with and impacted by our environments, and our environments are forever changing and shifting, our observations in this regard cannot help but shift as well. And are then biased as well since what we’re dealing with here are analyses of our own species and subgroups thereof — research material we’re pretty much incapable of being 100% objective in relation to.

          You and I have been ’round on this subject in the past, and I understand you take some sort of offense at me aiming to keep these social realm inquiries more fluid and open and not restricted merely to the rigors of science (or the appearance of doing so at least). But I am not aiming to limit the social exploration realm here — actually more interested in expanding it and protecting it a bit from the scientism trend that has already engulfed much of Psychology and completely dominates Psychiatry (which began as “social sciences” in their own right). Like you, my artistic sensibilities act up and are likely the culprit here in why I am taking this position.

          We all study life and living…it does not presuppose someone else simply teaches it to us or that some ideas must already be established and *proven correct*. Exploration is what it is, and in this area some (nay, nearly all, I’ll argue) of the greatest insights have been provided by people with keen intuitions and penetrating observational skills not directly taught to them by others. Is that science? Well, yes and no. It’s what sciences stemmed out of as well, sure, but that level of precision we’ve come to identify sciences with these days oftentimes makes a further mess of comprehending social realities without providing us with deeper understandings. More often than not, such approaches tend to obscure more than they help illuminate. As if that toolkit doesn’t work particularly well over here. It helps in some areas and in some ways, to whatever extents, as with compiling statistics and creating interesting social experiments to glean information from. But it doesn’t take us a whole lot further than that, at least not in terms of grasping at the most interesting aspects of our natures and motivations and interactivity (including our spiritual yearnings and connectedness).

          Perhaps what I am saying here is that this is indeed as much about art as it is about science. And that’s fine too.

          Either way, the last thing I wish to do today is get bogged down in arguing semantics. Study, research, exploration…call it whatever you will. Again, that’s part of why I’d love to keep what I can of this subject matter down here on the ground, so to speak, rather than relegated to the domain of those who try to dictate what it must be, how it must be conducted, how its terminology must align with the rest of the scientific world, etc. That is not my bag. It’s okay if it’s yours, but I am not swayed in caring about much of that. That drive for precision all unto itself is what winds up sucking all the life out of the inquiry, making it rigid and sterile when there really is no need (or want) to do so.

          While I understand the trends in motion at present and the push to take all in under that one umbrella known as Science, I’m just saying that I don’t think we need to be so restrictive here. Some will do that, and that’s fine. Others won’t and will opt for other approaches, and that’s fine too. Because that’s how this realm flows — in all sorts of directions. And I’m cool with that and would like to preserve that. I suppose others can do as they wish. Not making a bid here for others to change their ways of looking at things on my account, not that they ever would anyway.

          On the topic of paradoxes…that’s a big place where you and I lose one another. You see no real paradoxes because you state physical paradoxes are impossible. I am not speaking here about physical paradoxes but rather about the human experience with living and thinking and coming to grips with conflicting truths, etc. And yes, just as with religion, this is where our language tends to prove insufficient. Hence the importance of art and other forms of expression in communicating these ideas with one another more effectively.

          You said: “What it seems like from where I sit is that you want it both ways. You want others to acknowledge the legitimate factual basis of the soft sciences, but you don’t fully embrace the even more factual basis of the hard sciences that underpin them all.”

          It’s one thing to take into consideration the underpinnings that have more to substantiate them, quite another to play with ideas and grapple with why things are as they are in the social realm without needing to accept them with as much *certainty* as the other. I am not seeking it both ways, because I do believe it’s folly to place too much faith (yep, gonna use that word) in what’s put forth from the social science realm. Or at least the same sort of faith. It’s a different beast, related but not the same. I don’t know how to make that clearer here today. Probably will never be able to articulate these views the way I wish to, and so be it if that’s the case. That’s part of the issue — some of what I’m trying to point at here doesn’t lend itself well to the same sort of direct examination. In other words, it belongs to the non-physical realm.

          These sort of topics can’t help but get me feeling like a mad hatter attempting to converse with a bunch of other mad hatters who happen to see things in a peculiarly different way. lol And I doubt there’s much hope for resolution.

          You said: “But as I said at the top, perhaps what you’re really yearning for is more real science understanding when it comes to social sciences?”

          No, not really. Because I don’t think that’s realistic to yearn for in the first place. Won’t turn out to be as beneficial as some might like to imagine. That probably won’t make much sense to you either. But it’s okay. No worries.

        • Byenia says:

          Thought about another thing. It’s all about scrutinizing the methodology employed. In case it isn’t already well-known, the social sciences realm has put out some really wacky social theories over the years, and yet despite some of them seeming preposterous they still garner followers. Why? Because people aren’t as rational as we’d like to believe. Or at least not in the ways we might wish they would be.

          Another angle to this problem is that when research is conducted, especially when embraced by a well-respected agency like the CDC, many people will then just run around parroting these supposed findings. Nevermind if the methodology turns out to be questionable once scrutinized by more curious folks. But once that lie has been repeated enough times, people will fight for it tooth-and-nail, truths be damned, conflicting evidence be damned. And what do you do when the whole research project in question is largely statistical in nature and based on self-reported data? How does one ensure the participants queried are being completely honest, especially when it comes to hot-button controversial subjects of inquiry? You can’t.

          Not sure how far one can hope to drag that sort of information collecting toward the harder science end of the spectrum and expect it to still appear valid. Hence what I mean about so much of this revolving around conjecture, opinions, perceptions, and other non-physical areas of interest.

          Obviously this all depends on which fields in particular we’re zoning in on within the social sciences realm. As you already know, sociology was my primary field of study or at the least the lens through which I began examining the rest. That one is highly, highly subjective. Can’t help but be so. The social theories offered up within it tend to be social, political and economic critiques and reported observations — that’s a far cry from the sort of research and information-gathering that one can find in, say, astronomy or chemistry. Because people aim to bolster these social theories with statistical data and experimental evidence, that still doesn’t reduce the haziness inherent to that area of exploration. Because it’s always a question of how many other variables are at play here, and the answer is probably a damn-near infinite number. Just as the biases cycle in fads alongside other trends and commonly wind up distorting this sort of information or at least how it’s marketed to the public.

          While I realize people don’t like to hear that, that’s the stickiness of social exploration. Just is. Those interested in less ambiguous answers would be best suited focusing on another field. We over here have as much in common with religions and philosophy, if not more so, than we do with the rest of the scientific community. And that’s okay. Not everything in life can (or even arguably should) be framed as Science. That’s where I think we wind up getting into trouble, because then we get in a hurry to be taken more seriously and foolishly make the mistake of lending more credence to a social theory than it truly warrants, usually because it’s seen as politically or socially fashionable/popular/expedient to do so at a given point in time. That’s not science, no matter how much it dresses itself up to pose as such.

          The social theory is about ideas and opinions and it may ring quite accurate to a lot of people (or not), but still — either way, what may appear legitimate and revealing today might just as likely seem horrendous or absurd a few decades down the road. And not necessarily because new information trumps it — can run the opposite way as well when cultures regress or decline.

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