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How scientific is social science?

How scientific is social science? It seems to me that the way to address this question is to determine what we mean by "science" and by "social science" and then to see to what degree each of the several so-called social sciences meets the criteria of our definition--in other words, to what degree the field is scientific.

What is the unifying factor which leads us to classify certain bodies of knowledge as sciences? It is the way in which the body of knowledge was obtained; the unity of the sciences lies in their method. Knowledge obtained by this method is referred to as scientific; men who utilize the method to add to a body of knowledge we call scientists; a body of knowledge compiled by the method is designated a science.

The scientific method itself consists of seeking knowledge on the basis of three assumptions. The scientist does not say that no data gathered outside this framework can be true or useful; he does claim that only knowledge gained in this manner is scientific. To proceed scientifically, he assumes that:

1. The most reliable method of gaining knowledge is through the human senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. When a person "just has the feeling, deep inside him" that the Cleveland Indians will win the World Series in 1959, he does not have scientific knowledge. When Aristotle assumed that a horse had a certain number of teeth because that seemed a reasonable number of teeth for a horse to have, he did not add to scientific knowledge. Had he looked inside the mouths of some horses to find out how many teeth were there, or reach inside to touch and count them, he would have had a scientific datum, straight from the horse's mouth. It is true that scientists often use instruments in their data-gathering, but these are nothing more than devices to aid them in their sense perceptions. The most refined of gauges must be read by a human eye if it is contribute to the storehouse of human knowledge. The thermometer does not feel a temperature; the ruler does not measure a distance; the stethoscope does not hear a heartbeat. Each is an auxiliary to the human senses, but it is the eye and ear of the person using them which makes of their sensitive indications a scientific observation.

2. The most reliable method of organizing knowledge is through the use of human logic. There is a widespread belief that scientists are persons who "let the facts speak for themselves." Facts never speak for themselves, if by this it is meant that a datum has meaning without interpretation. Facts have no meaning unless they are presented as statements of relationship to other facts. During our lives, each of us has acquired a considerable store of knowledge which he is accustomed to bring to bear upon each new fact he acquires. It is easy, therefore, to be unaware on many occasions that our human brains are cataloging the newly presented information with reference to other information which we already possess. If, for example, a friend informs us that the temperature outside today is 74[degrees], we are inclined to think that this fact is meaningful all by itself. Actually, it would take pages to list all the facts to which we relate this one. First, obviously, each word in his sentence has a meaning to us because we were socialized in a culture where English is the standard language. Then, too, we are familiar with a Fahrenheit scale for measuring temperatures, and are aware that it is customary in ordinary conversation to refer to this scale rather than to a Centigrade one. We know that water boils at 212[degrees], that it freezes at 32[degrees], that normal room temperature in our society is about 68[degrees]. Our reaction that it is unseasonably warm today, or unseasonably cool, or about what one would have expected, indicates a knowledge of the time of year, the geographic location, and some information about temperatures in this area at this season in previous years. This simple illustration points up what we mean when we refer to a science as a body of knowledge: it is a body because it consists of facts which have been organized in relation to one another by human reason.

3. The most reliable method of checking knowledge involves the independent conclusions of other competent observers. The reason we sometimes have to wait so long to gain access to the startling medical discovery announced in the Reader's Digest or some other well-known medical journal is that a relationship between facts seems apparent in the experience of one competent observer, but it has not been validated by others, and hence is not yet accepted by scientists as part of a body of scientific knowledge. It is not unknown in human experience for one observer to see small winged beings descending from the clouds, to hear them speak to him, and even to touch them. But because other competent observers cannot see or hear or touch them, their existence cannot be accepted as a scientific datum.

In summary, then, when: an observer gains knowledge through one or more of his senses; and he uses his human reason to interpret his observation (i.e., relates it to other facts); and other persons sufficiently well trained in the area being studied see or hear or touch or smell or taste the same things as the first scientist and, using their human logic, organize the knowledge they have gained in the same way as the first observer (i.e., reach the same conclusions), we have a scientific 'fact.'

Having answered the question, "what is science" (at least to the satisfaction of the writer), we are faced with the question: can there be such a thing, then, as social science? By "social sciences" we mean those bodies of knowledge compiled through the use of scientific method which deal with the forms and contents of man's interaction. To be social is to interact, to participate in group life. It is true that textbooks in the social sciences sometimes detail the social interaction of living beings other than humans, such as ants or apes, but this is usually for the purpose of illustrating, drawing analogy, or in some way attempting to understand better the social behavior of human beings.

All human beings are social. People have to interact with other people in order to survive. Since all human beings live in a society, which is to say that every person is a member of some human group, it is just as reasonable to speak of a social environment as to talk, as people more often do, of their physical environment. People are, after all, much more profoundly influenced by their social surroundings than by their physical ones. The three-year-old son of a steel mill laborer in Pittsburgh who is taken from his home and reared by foster parents in a steel mill laborer's family in Birmingham, England, will not only talk and act differently than he would have had he remained in Pittsburgh; he will even think differently. The change in his physical environment will have been minimal; the alteration in his behavior will be traceable to the difference in the two social environments. As the physicist, the chemist, the astronomer, the biologist study the universe in which we live and the elements of which it is composed in an attempt to understand our physical environment and to predict what will happen in a given set of circumstances, so do social scientists study the social environment in which we live in an attempt to understand human society and to predict how people will interact in a given set of circumstances.

Can there be such a thing as social science? There are those who answer, "No!" I have here in my hand (as it seems fashionable to say) a statement by Raymond Moley, whose views on this matter will probably not surprise those of you acquainted with his views on other topics. In his column in Newsweek, Mr. Moley says:
 ... foundation-supported research should probably limit itself to the
 field of health and the more exact physical sciences. When
 foundations enter the still cloudy field of what is quite incorrectly
 called "social science," they ask for trouble. For such
 investigations almost certainly get into ideological and
 controversial matters. Since every dollar spent by a tax exempt
 foundation must be made up by the generality of taxpayers, those who
 strongly disagree with the point of view of the foundation can well
 object to a requirement that they contribute thereto.... Tax-exempt
 foundations might well limit themselves or be limited to the war
 against disease, to the natural sciences, and to grants without
 strings to established institutions devoted to higher education,
 religion, or true scientific research. (1)

My answer to the question, "Can there be social science?" is, "Why not?" We can observe human beings; we can organize the data which we observe; we can have them checked by other competent observers. Why not social sciences? Other than to say "There is no reason why not," there are only two answers to my question, as far as I know. One is a matter of one's personal belief system, which can be answered pragmatically to my satisfaction, but not, I hasten to admit, to everyone's; the second answer to the question reveals, not a different belief system, but simply ignorance.

One set of answers in opposition to the application of the scientific method to the understanding of human beings boils down to this: God did not intend us to understand man; it is evil to attempt to do so. This is the same point of view that was expressed in criticism of Galileo for studying the physical universe. New knowledge is always threatening to vested interests; we are less than sophisticated if we express surprise, much less horror, at opposition from persons and groups to the pursuit of knowledge. It was only three decades ago that a teacher was tried in court in this country for teaching his students the theory of evolution. This trial occurred after Einstein had published his now-famous formula; it occurred in the lifetime of Luther Burbank. We do not have to lean on Galileo or other medieval examples for this point. Last year a lady came to Northwestern University and withdrew her 20-year-old son from one of my classes because the textbook mentioned the theory of evolution. If you believe in a God who created man slightly higher than the beasts and slightly lower than the angels and who looks upon the study by such a man of the behavior of his fellows as a moral outrage, then I have no answers for you other than those to be found in the historical development of man's thinking on this topic. I can disprove by the scientific method neither the existence of such a God nor his disapproval of social science.

The other usual objection to the existence of social sciences, which I characterized earlier as revealing ignorance, is that there cannot be social sciences. Sciences of social life are impossible, say the proponents of this view, because human nature is unpredictable. You cannot generalize about how humans will behave. This would be a very damaging argument except for one thing: it is not true.

The social behavior of human beings is patterned, and hence can be described in general principles. All societies are structured, all societies are stratified, all societies implement a division of labor on the basis of age and sex: these are general sociological principles. (2) Anthropology offers similar principles of culture: all societies have value systems, consisting of ideal patterns which are taught each member of the society, and normative patterns, which are actual behavior; all cultures exhibit some degree of variance between the real and ideal patterns of behavior. (3) Psychological research indicates that all societies have persons who deviate from the norms, all societies contain individuals with varying capacities for learning; individuals in all societies feel hostility, and if one hostility-focus is removed, they will find another. (4)

The above are general descriptive principles; more important for our case that social sciences already exist is the ability in various fields to make predictive statements: if this, then that. When one culture is exposed to another, new technology will be diffused faster than new value patterns--the principle of cultural lag. (5) As a social group loses functions, it will lose stability: a brief description of the modern urban-industrial family. (6) People will migrate a distance which is inversely proportional to the number and magnitude of intervening economic opportunities. (7)

Finally, and probably most convincing to the layman, it is possible to predict specific behaviors in a certain society at a specific time. The population of the U.S. in 1950 was predicted on a percentage increase basis to a decimal of accuracy in the 1920s. (8) We can give paper-and-pencil questionnaires to convicts and predict recidivism and success among parole applicants. (9) Burgess and his associates have designed questionnaires on the basis of which they can predict the probable marital success of engaged couples. (10) Production rates in industrial environments can be altered by the implementation of changes in personnel policies. (11)

I am saying that there not only can be social sciences, there are social sciences. I have still not addressed the question: how scientific are the social sciences? The answer, of course, is that some are more scientific than others. The social sciences have come a long way in the past three decades, and they have a long way to go. Among those which have the longest way to go are those schools of political science whose primary concern is scolding (or attempting to reform) the world from the point of view of private sets of values. In some areas of economics (for example, market research), psychology, and sociology, there has been marked progress in scientific rigor and predictive power, largely because of a willingness to employ quantitative techniques. But as for those areas of the social sciences which are not yet sufficiently scientific, what are the deterrents that are holding them back?

The first deterrent to progress in social science--and in the past the most important--is ethnocentrism. Members of any society tend to believe that their way of thinking, their way of doing things, is not only the best but the 'right' way. The Navajos refer to themselves as "people" and to all outsiders as "others"; Jews have classified all others as Gentiles; in ancient Greece there were only Greeks and Barbarians. The belief that one's own way of thinking is the proper way still influences the social sciences. Last week I heard a political scientist in a curriculum discussion say that his job was to guide his graduate students into the execution of research projects which would "prove that democracy is the best form of government." I happen to believe that democracy is indeed the best form of government, but I do not think that this sort of research design is going to advance social science. There is no such thing, scientifically speaking, as Catholic sociology or bourgeois genetics, and until social scientists free themselves from this mode of thinking, there will be obstacles to scientific progress.

A second deterrent to scientific research is the confusion of engineering with science. Scientists assume that any knowledge, whether or not it is "practical," is worth while. There is a crucial difference between the scientist, who discovers knowledge, and the engineer, who applies it. The physicist discovers the laws of mass and volume; the engineer applies them in constructing a bridge. The social worker does not test hypotheses in order to evaluate a scientific theory; he applies the knowledge presented to him by sociologists and psychologists. In other words, he is a social engineer. No invidious comparison between scientists and those who apply scientific knowledge is intended. I am saying simply that pressures upon scientists to engage only in "useful" research can do much to deter the development of science.

A third deterrent to the development of social science is often erected by social scientists themselves--or else by their over-enthusiastic disciples. I refer now to crazes or fads for certain techniques or approaches. Consider, for a moment, the Rogerian school of non-directive interviewing as a research device and non-directive therapy as an applied or engineering technique. (12) I do not deny the utility of these techniques, either in research or in therapy. It is possible, however, for one to become so exclusively enamored of a technique (as are some of Rogers's disciples) that he can see no other way of approaching a problem. Instances of dogmatic over-enthusiasm are likewise not unknown among students of general semantics. In all such cases, science is the loser, for designs and techniques are matters of strategy, not morals.

A fourth impairment to social science I would call conceptual inefficiency, the employment of concepts with vague or untestable referents. A necessary requisite for the emergence of an exact science is a clear and unambiguous terminology. I have already cited the hazards of equating the implementation of principles, or engineering, with the discovery of principles, or science. Psychoanalysis, for example, is still largely a technique, an engineering practice, a case of the implementation of principles which have not always been precisely formulated. Almost classical examples of entrapment by inefficient concepts can be found in its literature. (13) The misleading images conjured up by such concepts tend, inevitably, to dominate the beliefs.

I do not mean to suggest that solid empirical research has not been accomplished within the framework of Freudian psychology. That Freudian concepts can be given empirical referents, that they can be operationally defined, is adequately illustrated by such fine scientific work as that of Winch and his associates. (14) This, and other endeavors of like caliber, are pioneering work, expanding the frontiers of social science. There is a real danger, however, in lumping with this work non-scientific pursuits which have been incited by Freudian writings, as the public is wont to do. As long as engineering activities, such as psychoanalytic therapy, are confused with science, they will serve to impede the progress of science.

I will mention, briefly, only two more deterrents to the development of social science. The first is a tendency to substitute exactitude for meaning-fulness--in other words, to follow the safe course by studying what is easy to study, even if this means ignoring problems which are more pressing for the furthering of theory because they are harder to solve. Psychology is probably the worst offender here, though many sociologists are making a noble attempt to hold onto second place. This tendency is summed up in a comment contrasting the exactitude of American social science with the European tendency to grapple, however, inexpertly, with basic theoretical problems. It has been said that the European social scientist doesn't know what he is talking about, which is a great deal, while the American knows precisely what he is talking about, which isn't much.

The final deterrent to scientific endeavor in the area of human interaction is an unpleasant one to have to mention: it is fear. The view is growing that one is wise to avoid controversial issues: a redundant term, since if a topic is not controversial it is not an issue. Issues cannot be omitted from science except through falsity, distortion, and concealment. If an issue is presented as though it were not one--that is, as if there were only one side to it, that is not science, it is indoctrination. The intimidation of foundation research programs attempted this year by the Reece Committee--the intimidation of research scientists at Harvard attempted by Senator Joseph McCarthy--these do not bode well for the development of a vigorous social science research program in the United States. If we really want social science, we must, as citizens, demand the fairest possible exploration of all sides of a social problem. Such exploration is not fostered by vocal pressure groups who want only their side presented and who are able to threaten with possible loss of his livelihood and reputation anybody who suggests that there is another side.

If we really want social science in this country, we will have to insure social scientists the freedom that their work demands.


1. Raymond Moley, "The Foundation Investigation," Newsweek (December 20, 1954), p.204

2. Kimball Young, Sociology, A Study of Society and Culture, Second Edition (New York: American Book Company, 1949), pp.465-540.

3. John W. Bennett and Melvin M. Tumin, Social Life: Structure and Function (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), pp.223-258; Kingsley Davis, Human Society, (New York: The Macmillan Company), pp.52-82.

4. Bennett and Tumin, op. cit., pp.306-313, 365-367; Robin M. Williams, Jr., The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1947), pp.49-77.

5. William Fielding Ogburn, "The Hypothesis of Cultural Lag," in Logan Wilson and William L. Kolb (eds.), Sociological Analysis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), pp.111-116.

6. Davis, op. cit., pp.392-432.

7. Samuel A. Stouffer, "Intervening Opportunities: A Theory Relating Mobility and Distance," American Sociological Review, 5 (1940), pp.845-867.

8. P.K. Whelpton, "Population of the United States, 1925 to 1975," American Journal of Sociology, 34 (1928), pp.253-271.

9. Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor T. Glueck, 500 Criminal Careers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930).

10. E.W. Burgess and Leonard S. Cottrell, Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1939); E. W. Burgess and Paul Wallin, Engagement and Marriage (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1953).

11. Delbert C. Miller and William H. Form, Industrial Sociology (New York: Harper, 1951).

12. Carl Rogers, "The Non-directive Method as a Technique for Social Research," American Journal of Sociology, 50 (1945), pp.279-283.

13. An excellent review of such examples can be found in Robert E.L. Faris's review of E. Pumpian-Mindlin (ed.), Psychoanalysis as Science: The Hixon Lectures on the Scientific Status of Psychoanalysis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1952), in American Sociological Review, 18 (1953), pp.437-439.

14. See, for example, Robert F. Winch, "The Theory of Complementary Needs in Mate Selection: A Test of One Kind of Complementariness," American Sociological Review, 20 (1955), pp.52-56.

From ETC 12-3, Spring 1955. This paper was presented at the annual dinner of the Chicago Chapter of the International Society for General Semantics, December 28, 1954. Raymond W. Mack was Associate Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University.
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Author:Mack, Raymond W.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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