Artists often desire social recognition for their contribution to society, recognition that might come in the form of funding, recognition, validation, or visibility. Teachers do the same, perhaps striking to foster awareness of the constraints within which they conduct their work. Even politicians have to convince the population that their efforts are worthwhile; otherwise, they don’t get reelected.
Increasingly, scientists, too, seek legitimacy for their work. The March for Science on April 22, 2017 had this claim to legitimacy as one of its goals: politics should take scientific knowledge into account when making decisions.
Here’s the rub: science changes its mind and sometimes scientists (including social scientists) can’t seem to agree on what constitutes scientific rigour and scholarly success, or even how to interpret results. This apparent conflict does nothing for the public perception of an endeavour truthfully plagued by practical and social problems, from funding to publishing pressures.
Most people don’t seem to understand the scientific method. In fact, most people don’t seem to understand that science is in fact a method, not an object. Yes, the word “science” can be used as shorthand for “knowledge garnered through scientific research,” but I suspect most serious scholars would claim that the power of science lies in its principles, not in the body of knowledge itself.
This is why social science is a science, even though many studies are neither replicable nor generalizable, two cornerstones of what we might think of as science. That’s not a flaw in the method; it’s a limitation in the object of study. People and culture and society are complex, shape-shifting objects.
Science philosopher Ian Hacking coined the term “looping effect” to denote the process whereby ideas about how society or identity works directly influence how society or identity actually works. New studies of these things modify the scientific or social consensus, which then further influences how people view or experience them. And so on ad infinitum.
In one example, certain trends become apparent through research about what it means to be a refugee. Identifying people as refugees only becomes possible once the notion of a refugee becomes socially widespread. People thus identified become aware of what it means to be a refugee through how that identity is constructed by institutions and their fellow refugees. They will have multiple social scripts available to them, but those scripts are shaped by the culturally accepted notion of “refugee-ness.”
Science is like this. It is messy and some things change. Other things don’t. For instance, some scientific disciplines have a condition humorously known as physics envy. Physics doesn’t really change and it can be measured with mathematical precision, no matter how social conditions and individual biases might shift. (I’m talking about the actual workings of physics, not the study and practice of physics, which of course change with societal variations.) In many other fields, including so-called “hard” sciences like biology or psychology, the actual facts might mutate along with external conditions. Life expectancy lengthens with improved hygiene, education, and access to healthcare. Menstruation starts at a younger age with a change in diet. Being LGBTQ+ is a risk factor for depression, due to antipathetic cultural norms.
These factual changes are uncomfortable. Something can be true only under specific conditions, but we imagine that it is always true, because it is currently true or it has been true in our experience. People might think science is just making an “educated guess” based on preexisting ideas. To a certain extent, that is true, because scientists are people and we are all biased and prone to errors in thinking. In fact, however, in science, an educated guess is called a hypothesis and it is the starting point, not the end point, of research. The hypothesis guesses at the outcome based on prior results, but the study’s purpose is to attempt to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, what we think is likely true needs to be tested and challenged and disputed in as many ways as possible and as many times as possible before we can accept it as true. Scientists call this process “falsification.” They are trying to prove their ideas wrong, not right.
Unlike many others, (good) scientists of all stripes welcome criticism. Scientists want to improve their craft. They want to know what they are collectively doing wrong, so that they can do it better.
Obviously, individual scientists with ego issues or tunnel vision might not welcome criticism, especially from another field, but overall, the scientific community aims to hone in on all the factors that go into knowing reality. These factors include subjectivity, interdisciplinary awareness, cross-cultural understanding, and myriad other intangible ingredients. Good scientists welcome the challenge.
The rest of the world looks at them and thinks, “Man, they keep changing their minds. They keep making mistakes. They aren’t paying attention to what’s going on over here.” And so on. Those are true statements. But instead of rejecting all science because of these issues, let’s try opening up a conversation. Let me say it again: good scientists will welcome the criticism and change tack accordingly.
Do scientists have all the answers? Of course not. Certainly not as individuals, and even collectively there is much yet unknown. And some things can’t be known through science.
Science is flawed and it is imperfect and it is sometimes wrong. But it is the best method we have for solving large-scale questions, like polio or religious war or climate change or the origins of humanity, and for figuring out how things work, like weather, socialization, affection, and bridge stability.
We absolutely need social science and philosophy and art and literature and personal experience to live meaningful lives, and even sometimes to give us personal answers. But cutting out science means ignoring an intimate, integral part of our humanity. We have an innate and cultivated desire to know and understand, an urge to observe and reason, and an impulse to test our ideas against those of others to determine what might be true.
Science is not everything. But it sure is something.