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August 2, 2010

Social science isn’t “science”?

Filed under: Epistemology,Scientism,Social Science — Razib Khan @ 8:53 am

Update: The title is way too strong as a reflection of my opinion. I’ve added a question mark.

A friend once observed that you can’t have engineering without science, making the whole concept of “social engineering” somewhat farcical. Jim Manzi has an article in City Journal which reviews the checkered history of scientific methods as applied to humanity, What Social Science Does—and Doesn’t—Know: Our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound.

The criticisms of a scientific program as applied to humanity are deep, and two pronged. As Manzi notes the “causal density” of human phenomena make teasing causation from correlation very difficult. Additionally, the large scale and humanistic nature of social phenomena make them ethically and practically impossible to apply methods of scientific experimentation. This is why social scientists look for “natural experiments,” or involve extrapolation from “WEIRD” subject pools. But as Manzi notes many of the correlations themselves are highly context sensitive and not amenable to replication.

He concludes:

It is tempting to argue that we are at the beginning of an experimental revolution in social science that will ultimately lead to unimaginable discoveries. But we should be skeptical of that argument. The experimental revolution is like a huge wave that has lost power as it has moved through topics of increasing complexity. Physics was entirely transformed. Therapeutic biology had higher causal density, but it could often rely on the assumption of uniform biological response to generalize findings reliably from randomized trials. The even higher causal densities in social sciences make generalization from even properly randomized experiments hazardous. It would likely require the reduction of social science to biology to accomplish a true revolution in our understanding of human society—and that remains, as yet, beyond the grasp of science.

At the moment, it is certain that we do not have anything remotely approaching a scientific understanding of human society. And the methods of experimental social science are not close to providing one within the foreseeable future. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably. Until then, we need to keep stumbling forward with trial-and-error learning as best we can.

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