Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Richard Feynman on social science.

Richard Feynman is famous for his ground-breaking work in quantum physics. I found an interview on youtube where he discusses social science very critically, calling it a pseudo-science. His basic argument is that social science has no tangible laws, no theorems like "hard science" does. There is no social science, not yet at least. Studying societies is far more complex and it's not as easy to be scientific with so many variables. He has a point. Here's the video, what do you think?

Technically, Feynman is right, but I wouldn't be completely dismissive about the field (that would be bad, having a sociology BA and all...). To me, social science is still in a very embryonic state, just as the hard sciences once were.

One good way to look at social science is that it is still developing into a science, just as the hard sciences had their alchemy which eventually evolved into chemistry, social science is evolving too. Feynman mentioned in the video that they have the scientific method down, but any discernible scientific laws are far from being realized. I would agree. We have a lot of data, a lot of information about social phenomena, but no tangible theorems (yet), at least not mainstream.

It's also really important to note that there is a necessary acknowledgment of hierarchy or holarchy in science. Biology is dependent on chemistry, which is dependent on physics for its principles. But a physicist can't say that biology isn't scientific, even though it is far less predictable. It's just more complex. A social science would be another big leap in complexity. That's what makes it so difficult. It also doesn't mean that social science can be reducible to physics, any more than biology can. The variables are far more complicated. We don't have instruments for observing social interaction the same way we can create microscopes and telescopes.

In my opinion, we might begin to have more tangible and observable, and thus scientific theories that apply to all human societies once we begin to converge our data. This would imply that sociologists, anthropologists, economics, psychologists, biologists, neurologists, archeologists, etc. work together.

This is getting easier to do, particularly in the internet age. Once we get our data together we can begin to discern patterns, and maybe work up some nice models that explain human societies scientifically. The 21st century is an exciting time to be a social scientist, because the fruit of decades of research may eventually start to reveal underlying principles in all human societies.

This also may call for us to acknowledge the idea that a society is a process, a flux. Or in other words, just as our awareness of biological evolution opened up new gateways of knowledge, our awareness of sociological evolution might reveal new principles about our very nature.

It's popular to place social science on the side lines, while hard-science attempts to describe human behavior exhaustively in biological and genetic terms. While it is revealing a lot about us, I think this approach will have limitations, because it doesn't take into account that we aren't reducible to 1) behavior 2) genetics and biology. There is a layer, a socio-cultural layer, that has its own properties and hopefully, we'll approach it more scientifically as time goes on.

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    open source sociology by Jeremy Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
    Based on a work at www.opensourcesocio.blogspot.com.