A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’. There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional theory > hypothesis > testing mode of deductive reasoning. A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy’” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.
Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model. They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:
“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”
There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.
There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability. These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us. From the article: “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”
The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues. Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues. What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study. As the authors conclude:
“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”