“Yeah, But is it Science?”

Random lab scientists, in their stereotypical uniforms, from days gone by.

Maybe the most difficult issue faced by social scientists is the perception that, somehow, what we do is not “science.”  Although, in fairness, it doesn’t seem as widespread or blatant now as when I first got into the game; it is almost unthinkable now that a business, agency, or organization would implement a new policy without provision for its social scientific study; and funding for US social science research continues in the billions every year.

One reason we face this challenge is that all people are so familiar with what social scientists study that everyone thinks they know what’s really happening.  But that is not the case.  If it were, we would all be living better lives and our social systems would operate far more smoothly.

Natural scientists have the advantage here because, even though we also all live in the physical and biological world, those feel more distant to the level of our direct experience.  Distance between observer and observed, easily mistaken for objectivity, is built into their process.  Natural scientists study many phenomena that are relatively simple (that is, reducible to simple mathematical models), while most everything social scientists study are complex (in the formal, mathematical sense).  And natural scientists are more readily forgiven their invention of necessary technical language to precisely describe what they study, while social scientists are questioned for introducing unnecessary complications to something that is, after all, patently obvious, right?

So what makes something “science?”  Several distinguishing characteristics have been suggested.  Here are a few of the most popular:

  • “Science” can be objectively described.
  • “Science” can be quantified.
  • “Science” can be directly observed.
  • “Science” can be manipulated experimentally.
  • “Science” can be falsified.

And yet it is as easy to find examples of respected, influential natural science that violate each of these criteria as it is to find examples of social science that hold to them.  My point is simply that, sometimes, “social” scientists adhere to all of these ideals, and other times, “natural” scientists do not — not to start yet another squabble over who has the more difficult time of it.  Good science is a challenge, no matter what we study.

So if “science,” in practice, violates each stereotypical principle, what does make something “science?”

  • “Science” is systematic.
  • “Science” is empirical.
  • “Science” is theoretical.
  • “Science” is capable of being compared to other explanations.
  • “Science” is self-correcting over time.

Science is about pattern recognition: separating signal from noise, and about identifying whether those patterns we think we see are real and meaningful.  We seek to find the simplest defensible explanation for a phenomenon, but not an oversimplification.

Science, in all its forms, is a human endeavor.  That means that it is sometimes messy, always imperfect, and seldom bears much resemblance in practice to what it looks like in the ideal.

I’ll return to each of these points in the coming weeks.  As a research methodologist, it is a subject near and dear to my heart.  But for now, I’ll step down off my digital soapbox.

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