Whence the Social Sciences ? – 2 : Comments on Method and Outlook

As I had previously mentioned, the social sciences came to be heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, especially the naturalist and positivist outlooks. It is in order that one takes a critical look at the methodologies and outlooks of these schools of thought and the attendant consequences.

With some thought, one can notice that the scientific methodology is steeped towards observation and verfication of facts. Now, for scientific method to be a socially acceptable system of generation of knowledge about the world, there must be one important component : reproducibility. Thus, observation and verification of facts must inevitably take the form of constructed experiments, whether they be elaborate or simple, easily reproducible or not. The results which follow and the method for obtaining the results themselves are then published and debated over. The best example for such a phenomenon is the present debate over climate change. If one set of people ( supporting Al Gore, mostly) say that we are going toward decimation, another set ( sponsored by Bush, no doubt) will say that both the method of finding facts of the opposing group and their interpretations of the same are both rubbish, and present other evidence to prove that infact, more petroleum must be burnt, preferably from those companies controlled by the American President. Another parallel is in the Open Source Software debate. Microsoft is decried for making expensive and psychologically damaging software, and Microsoft sponsors a study which shows that Open Source alternatives are much more expensive or more depressing. One thing is to be noted, however, all opposing groups claim to be committed to the same scientific method of observation and verification.

One, however, gets the feeling that both these might contain a grain of truth (unless we look from a partisan point of view), but a lack of larger amount of data is causing the confusion ( Malevolent mischief cannot be counted out, however). I remember reading in a slide of a boring presentation, to an omniscient being, there is no probability, no question of chance. Therefore, until definite information is acquired, nothing can be said. But here lies a weak link in scientific method : it is defined in a negative sense rather than in a positive sense. What I mean by this is that something is held as true only because there have been no observations to refute it. It takes only one antagonistic case to throw elaborate theories into the dustbin. This is due to the fact that most sciences deal with real life, and there is no “Theory of Everything”. The only positive proofs that one can give are only related to things which have no actual existence outside the human brain, like mathematics and computer science (CompSci can be taken as a subset of Maths). These are artificially constructed systems which sometimes (fortunately and also by design, sometimes) find applications in real life.

So, one can construct two body experiments in the lab and verify physical laws, stretch a little bit, call change of color of a solution to verify chemical laws, take a leap of faith, you can categorize all things with similar (not same!) features as part of the same species in biology. If it gets this bad in constructed experiments, one can only hope and pray to the unverifiable God that we can generalise and discover (not make, since one also hopes that there is something extra-human called society that makes the laws) laws governing society.

Indeed, the time that we are looking at consists precisely of heroic efforts trying to achieve the above. So, one says humans are brute, scum of the earth being held from destroying each other by people in power who threaten them with dire consequences, and this is the structure of society. Another says, wait a minute, humans are nice things, wanting only to maximize their own pleasure and minimizing their pains, and human society is made to help this happen. Yet another says all crap, humans are divided into classes locked in a death struggle with each other, and finally the lower classes will win. Bull, says another, humans are slowly evolving and so is society (which is taken to be an organism, like all others), and one can see what society was, is and will be by applying Darwinian principles.

And so on and so forth. It is not at all a bad thing to put forth ideas, but to put them forward in a way so as to give it a false legitimacy is what is bad. These were supposed to be ‘scientific’ opinions, put forth after their proponents delved into ‘deep study of humans and society’. Whereas nothing could be more correct than the opposite. In short, most of these propositions were a priori, and not empirically verifiable. This is the firm ‘scientific’ foundation on which our social sciences, notably economics and sociology came into being.

Added another book from which to draw from: Masters of Sociological Thought by Lewis A. Coser. Sapna bookstore, Indiranagar. Next time will be a more concrete example of how the above theoritical discussion took solid form in Economics or Sociology, depending on mood.

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