Thursday, February 19, 2015

Time For the Social Sciences

Social sciences and humanities have taken a back seat to natural sciences for many years now due to the constant advancements made in medical and technological fields of study, which often overshadow those made in fields of social science. Not only that but also because of the pretense that social sciences do not deal with empirical evidence and therefore are not technically “science.” This could not be further from the truth and completely undermines the importance of the social sciences as a whole. In fact, social sciences rely just as heavily on empirical evidence as natural sciences do. It is necessary for the public to understand the value of the social sciences because continued ignorance on the subject will lead to stagnation even in fields reliant on natural sciences. As a Nature editorial put it, “If you want science to deliver for society, through commerce, government or philanthropy, you need to support a capacity to understand that society that is as deep as your capacity to understand the science.” (Nature. “Time For the Social Sciences”) A better understanding and willingness to learn about the social sciences is necessary for continued progression, even in fields reliant on natural sciences.
Social science is simply the scientific study of human society and social relationships, in fields such as economics, politics, psychology, etc. People are quick to assume a lack of empirical research due to the “social” and “relationship” aspect of the science. Critic Martin E. Spencer claims in his book The Imperfect Empiricism of the Social Sciences that “practitioners of social science believe that they accumulate knowledge through a classical scientific dialectic of hypothesis and evidence (“scientific empiricism”), they in fact assume their hypotheses to be true images of the nature of the social world, and they resist evidence that gainsays these images (“imperfect empiricism”).”(331) However, scientists, especially those of the social nature, understand the paramount need to never claim a hypothesis to be true unless it is 100 percent backed by evidence, especially if it is an ongoing field of research with new information still being added to the topic. To assume one’s hypothesis as true, without strong evidence, and to resist evidence otherwise is known as pseudoscience, exactly what the social sciences strive not to do. He confuses ambiguity with a lack of research and acceptance of falsities as fact. Pulitzer winning historian David Kennedy believed dealing with ambiguity to be the essence of the natural sciences. He claimed that Interpretation, reconciliation, appreciating the points of origins of different positions is a social scientists “stock and trade.”(Haven, “Why Do I Need to Know That”) Not only is Mr. Spencer leagues from the truth, but his mindset is a driving force in the lack of funding and appreciation for the social sciences as a whole.
Why are the social sciences so important? What puts their relevance on par with natural sciences such as biology, physics, or chemistry? To answer this question one must simply look at the first word in social science; “social.” The definition of social is “of or relating to society or its organization.” Therefore social science is at its core the science of how society works, why society changes, and why society moves in the direction that it does. As Philipp Egger, Director /CEO of Gebert Rüf Stiftung stated, the social sciences help identify the need for reform in a country’s developmental sectors, particularly socio-economic, and address possible challenges and solutions concerning political stability, inter-ethnic relations, protection of minorities, and nation building(Egger, “How Social Sciences can Contribute to Changing a Society,”). To provide a visual, imagine the social sciences as a blueprint to a new building; the layout of the building, where it’s going to be built, and even why it’s going to be built. The natural sciences are the actual framework and physical aspect of the building. Although you cannot see the blueprint of the building, you should understand the importance of it and the integral role it plays in the creation of the building.

Photo by: Joe Shlabotnik

Not only are social sciences and natural sciences equally important but they often go hand in hand when it comes to certain fields of work or branches of study. These disciplines would not exist, or be severely lacking in information, if one of the types of sciences were to be excluded, just as a building would be nearly impossible to build without blueprints and blueprints would be relatively useless without tools to create a building. For instance, psychiatry uses both psychology and human biology in order to better understand the mental illnesses suffered by people and the correlation said illnesses have to different medications and treatments. Depression, as an example, is a mental illness that requires the diagnosis of someone who is versed in the psychological aspect of the brain. Medication is required for treatment of severe cases of this illness but can only be prescribed by a certified doctor who is versed in the effects of prescription medications and how they could potentially benefit the user suffering from depression. Someone lacking the psychological aspect would not be able to diagnose and someone lacking the medical aspect would not be able to treat more severe cases. Anthropology, the scientific study of humans past and present, as another example, uses a mix of social and life sciences to provide the most extensive overview into human life possible. Anthropologists use fossils as records to show where people lived and migrated to during which periods of time. They also use ethnography, participant observation, and focus groups to find and address possible problems in different cultures and how continued unchanged progression will affect said cultures. Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist known for discovering one of the earliest hominids, captured the relationship between the social and natural sciences in the field of anthropology perfectly when he reminisces on what originally drew him to his field of work, stating “When the first fossils began to be found in eastern Africa, in the late 1950s, I thought, what a wonderful marriage this was, biology and anthropology.I was around 16 years old when I made this particular choice of academic pursuit.” (Johanson)

Photo by: Sean O Domhnaill

Now imagine a world without social sciences. Not only would we be clueless as to why humans interact with each other the way they do, but we would also likely be living in extremely regressed social conditions. The social sciences are fields of study that are not necessarily beneficial in the immediate short term, as cures for diseases or new technologies may be, but over time they positively impact society just as a cure or new piece of technology may. Scientific racism, the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify the belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority, was finally discredited after World War II with the help of the social sciences. UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, released a statement titled “The Race Question” at the end of the war. The authors of the statement were the leading researchers of the time in psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and ethnology and the statement affirmed that all citizens must be equal in the eyes of the law, no matter any physical or intellectual differences. (Wiki. “The Race Question”) This statement was what many considered the start of a new social reform and although the reform has been slow and is arguably still in progress, without the social sciences we could very well still be living in times of overt racism and bigotry. As social sciences progress, so does the knowledge we have about people and the interactions between them. Social sciences helped lead to the understanding that people are human regardless of their skin color or cultural/ethnic background and through social sciences, legislation can be created for the betterment and equality of those previously discriminated against for illogical reasons. The knowledge provided by the social sciences continues to provide education to people as a whole which leads to less people being able to use ignorance as an excuse to discriminate against others and this leads to communal betterment worldwide.

To attempt a complete understanding of the world around us, one must first shed the misconceptions that come with the social sciences and begin to care. Not only must we care about areas concerning our nation, but all nations, especially if we wish to endorse our “land of the free” and “melting pot” criterions.  Karl Eikenberry vocalized this perfectly when he stated “If we don’t understand ourselves, we can’t do it well,...You can’t preserve something you don’t understand. You can’t defend what you don’t know.  If you aspire to be a transnational bridge, you have to be grounded on both sides of the river.” (Haven, “Why Do I Need to Know That”) The social and natural world are in constant interaction with one another and to view one as less scientific or less important only leads to a lack of understanding of the world as a whole.

Works Cited
  • "Time for the Social Sciences." Nature Publishing Group, 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
  • Egger, Philipp. How Social Sciences Can Contribute to Changing a Society. BaselArea: Gebert Ruf Stiftung, Aug. 2012. PDF.
  • Haven, Cynthia. ""Why Do I Need to Know That?" Defending the Humanities, Social Sciences in a Techno World." The Book Haven RSS. Stanford University, 7 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
  • Spencer, Martin E. The Imperfect Empiricism of the Social Sciences. Oneonta: Kluwer Academic, 1987. 331. Print.
  • "Donald Johanson." Xplore Inc, 2015. 16 February 2015.
  •  "The Race Question." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

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