Imagine upon Copernicus’ discovery based on observations that the Earth actually revolved around the sun, if to this day science declared that nothing actually revolved around anything. Yet this Social Science in the 21st Century continuously denies observable social facts, declaring instead that reality as expressed by observable facts aren’t really relevant in the larger theoretical framework. Scientific truth is in the eye of the beholder; reality is relative to [insert theory here].
Granted, Copernicus’ discovery wasn’t without controversy; there were a few witch burnings, and some Heresy trials by the Church. In the end however, science settled on the observable fact that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.
This process doesn’t happen in today’s social science. Data as a set of observable facts are required to be “massaged” into an increasingly predetermined paradigmatic box. Part of the result is that there is little agreement on the common definition of social phenomena, such as neoliberalism, social movements, behavioral economics, or even what Fascism is. Analysis of the social world becomes a series of stale paradigms that adds little to social discovery.
During the disputes as to whether or not Pluto was a planet, scientists were at least able to agree that it was a big hunk of icy rock, far, far away that had certain properties. From Political Science to Sociology to Economics to Psychology, ask each what Fascism is, and you’ll get a thousand different answers depending on what paradigm the person leans toward. Post modernists will have a vastly different answer than Marxists, Keynesians, Durkheimians, or those from the “Austria School.” Someone could stand up and scream: “I’M A FASCIST” and have an entire world agree with them, while social scientists would scream back: “NO YOU’RE NOT!’ because they don’t fit their particular paradigmatic box. Pluto is not a hunk of icy rock far, far away.
Scientifically, we know that gravity exists, and has certain characteristics let us know that it’s present. We can’t see gravity – we can’t touch it, mold it, or smell it. We can however measure its effects on other things, and we can “feel” it in our everyday lives. As well, scientifically we know what Fascism looks like. We can’t touch it, or smell it. Yet we know its effects on everything around it, can measure that, and we can even hear it sometimes. And still, despite all observable evidence of its presence and effects, there is little agreement among social scientists on what it is and whether or not it is present. This is the problem of conflating hypotheses with theory, and observation with methods in the social science.
Science is the philosophy of discovery. Theory derives from discovery; at least it’s supposed to. When theory does not derive from discovery, when hypotheses are conflated with theories and observations conflated with methods, then it takes away from the human and social wonderment of the process of discovery, be it the natural or social world.
The anti “I don’t know” doctrine
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to point out: science stands on the cusp of what is known and what is unknown. As scientists – whether natural or social – we absolutely cannot be afraid to not know something. It is counter-intuitive for science to be afraid of the unknown. It defies the very purpose of the existence of science. It’s not what we know, it’s about what we don’t know. If we know everything already – as many social scientists say that they do (especially the ones that get invited onto news shows), then there is no longer a need for discovery. Humanity cannot escape the confines of its own mind.
It’s important for Social Science to become an avenue of discovery instead of an avenue of hypotheses that gets conflated into theory. Jumping from observations to theory takes away from the discovery process, takes away from the expansion of human intellect on the whole, and leaves humanity with a critical missing piece in the social universe for which we as a species are no better off for. The methodological problem that has turned social science away from science is in part because of the “I don’t know” issue. As soon as social science can humble itself in the face of not knowing, embracing the idea of there being wonderment and awe in discovery of the social world, then it’s possible that the ideological problems within social science will figure themselves out. Until then, observable facts in the social world will stay relative, devoid of truth, and rob humanity of critical knowledge.
The discoveries of the natural world, and the universe are exciting! The discoveries of the social world could be just as exciting if we take some of the scientific steps between hypothesis and conclusion.