George Walford: Beyond Science

Social science has had a bad press. The wits use it as a target: ‘Forgive me Father, for I have committed sociology’; ‘It may not be dead, but the reports of its birth have been very much exaggerated.’ Ted Lewellen calls political anthropology ‘a potpourri of unrelated theories and ethnographic analyses’ [1] John Gray declares that political philosophy of the Anglo-American type has ‘condemned itself to political nullity and intellectual sterility.’ [2] Pamela Wells compares social science literature to the Bible as a source of evidence for almost any proposition and adds that in the social sciences ‘different researchers use different methodologies to measure similar things in different ways.’ [3] Rarely if ever can results be validated by the standard scientific method of replication, and the gap between prediction and outcome for the British General Election of 1992 exposed that basic tool of sociologists, the questionnaire, to public derision. Surveys, almost by definition, cannot compensate for differences between those willing to fill in questionnaires and those who refuse, much can happen between survey and event (‘a week is a long time in politics’), and the wish to present an acceptable image can influence the answers given while failing to affect the actions performed. Fourteen years ago Michael Billig was already saying: ‘There is considerable evidence of frequent discrepancies between people’s attitudes, as revealed by standard questionnaires, and their actual behaviour’ [4] (He lists six references, one dating from 1958).

There is, of course, another side to it. Although discrepancies between revealed attitude and behaviour frequently appear, correspondences also obtain and may well predominate; the number (of sociologists and others) who find the information derived from questionnaires useful, probably exceeds the number of those impelled to draw attention to its limitations. The pre-election surveys of 1992 failed to predict the result of the election, but (although the newspapers funding them and publishing their results tended to imply otherwise) they did not set out to do this. They undertook to predict how the electorate would vote, and (especially with the British system) complications intervene between this figure and the distribution of parliamentary seats. They got even the voting figures wrong by a significant margin, but they still provided information of positive value; apart, perhaps, from a few with expert knowledge (Neil Kinnock claimed after the event to have been expecting a Tory victory) people relying on the surveys are likely to have got closer to the actual voting figures than those limiting themselves to personal observation.

Social science, in short, produces (sometimes if not always) useful results but not (by the standards of the physical sciences) precise ones; its predictions, although more accurate than anything obtainable in this field by other methods, do not compare in this respect with those of ballistics or mechanics.

Although commonly taken to indicate a failure by social science this can be seen, at least equally well, as pointing to a limitation of the sciences studying macroscopic matter; these attain precision by restricting themselves to the study of material exhibiting only a narrow range of behaviour. James Franck, Nobel prizewinner and atomic physicist, has remarked on the tendency of physical scientists to select, from the infinite mass of problems facing them, the simple ones which seem likely to be readily solvable. [5] Jeremy Fodor, philosopher, draws attention to the limited success attending efforts to make science out of the psychologies of intelligence, creativity, mental pathology, affect, individual differences or development. Fodor points out, in this and other connections, that serious science does not often make much progress with the things that people care about. Its successful treatment of brains remains largely limited to their neurological and quantum mechanical properties, having little to say about the thinking which most of us take to be the important and interesting function of the brain. [6] This focus on features having a restricted connection with daily concerns extends even to the treatment of material objects; the law of gravitation stands among the supreme scientific achievements, and it takes account only of the masses of physical bodies and the distances between them, ignoring most of the features lending them interest or importance.

The social sciences also study inert matter, but as part of a range so much wider that this simplicity effectively disappears. Economists have to take the bulk and weight of commodities into account, but only as one factor affecting the web of relations, mainly social, which surround and virtually constitute them. Physical anthropology does come up with some accurate results validated by replication (skull sizes and facial angles for example) but it forms only one part of the anthropological discipline. The acknowledged imprecision of social science does not have to be a sign of inferiority; it can also be read as an indication of superior richness in the subject-matter, precision becoming less readily attainable as this increases.

‘Science’ comes from roots meaning simply knowledge; later it indicated, as in Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, organised knowledge. Only within very recent times, mainly within this century, has it come to mean primarily measurement and calculation, and the people in white coats still cannot tell us (it becomes increasingly unlikely that they ever will be able to tell us) exactly what it is they measure; their precision remains largely restricted to quantification. It is probably too late to bring ‘science’ back to anything like its earlier meaning; it has to be surrendered to the students of lumps of matter. So what of those who study society and its affairs? Well, how about if they simply drop this term, describing themselves as sociologists, anthropologists and so on and, generically, as engaged in social
studies?

NOTES:
[1] Lewellen Ted C.1983 Political Anthropology; an introduction Mass: Bergin & Garvey
[2] TLS 2 July
[3] TLS 19 June
[4] Billig M. 1978 Fascists; a social psychological view of the National Front London & NY Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 44
[5] Quoted in Jungk R. 1987 Brighter than a Thousand Suns; a personal history of the atomic scientists Harmondsworth: Penguin 41
[6] TLS 3 July.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.