Friday, May 25, 2012

How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?

Earlier this month, philosophy professor Gary Cutting authored a column on the New York Times Opinionator blog that made several bold claims about the predictive value of social science research:
Social sciences may be surrounded by the “paraphernalia” of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data and even carefully designed experiments.  But when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events.  We may have a theory that explains all the known data, but that may be just the result of our having fitted the theory to that data.  The strongest support for a theory comes from its ability to correctly predict data that it was not designed to explain.

While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not.  The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved.  For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to  distinguish and study separately.   Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects.   As a result, most social science research falls far short of the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments.
Cutting ultimately argues that the findings of social science research should not serve as the primary basis of public policy. "At best," he writes, "they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have."