Social Science is Hard

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 10:19 AM EDT

Via Dan Drezner, Nature defends federal funding of the social sciences and gets this part exactly right:

Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually....So, what has political science ever done for us? We don't, after all, know why crime rates rise and fall. We cannot solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, and we cannot agree on the state's role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The 'larger' the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of 'hard science'.”.

In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane's statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules.

The public commonly thinks of disciplines like physics and chemistry as hard because they rely so heavily on difficult mathematics. In fact, that's exactly what makes them easy. It's what Eugene Wigner famously called the "unreasonable effectiveness" of math in the natural sciences: the fact that, for reasons we don't understand, the natural world really does seem to operate according to strict mathematical laws. Those laws may be hard to figure out, but they aren't impossible. And once you do figure them out, the rest is mere engineering.1

Hari Seldon notwithstanding, the social sciences have no such luck. Human communities don't obey simple mathematical laws, though they sometimes come tantalizingly close in certain narrow ways — close enough, anyway, to provide the intermittent reinforcement necessary to keep social scientists thinking that the real answer is just around the next corner. And once in a while it is. But most of the time it's not. It's decades of hard work away. Because, unlike, physics, the social sciences are hard.

1Just a wee joke. Settle down.

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