June 05, 2008

V-blank-blank-d-o-o? Anyone? Anyone?

From the fertile mind of Jerry Pournelle comes this essay. Or rather, I should say "comes again", since he first wrote it back in 1988. Anyway, excerpt:


"I wouldn't know anything about politics," my friend said the other day. "I'm only an engineer."

He happens to be a very good engineer, but he named his profession as if he were ashamed of it. I see this a lot. The social scientists are automatically assumed to know more about society and politics than the hard scientists--even when the subject matter is something like nuclear power.

I wouldn't be so sure.
...
You can prove anything if you make up your data. You can prove nearly anything if you are allowed to select your evidence and forget embarrassing facts.

The social sciences have made an art of forgetting embarrassing facts. If a fact doesn't fit the theory, leave the fact for another discipline. Sociology has nothing to learn from anthropology, which has nothing to learn from social psychology. None of these has anything to learn from the mathematics, physics, or chemistry departments.

The solution to C. P. Snow's dilemma seems clear. Scientists must learn something of the humanities. That, I think, is done rather more often than not. Scientists do read books. I have met the maniac scientist bent on discovery no matter the harm far more often in literature than in the laboratory.

Secondly, the humanists must learn something of science. This is less common, but it does happen. It isn't necessary that the humanist become a scientist, or even learn how to do science; it is necessary that he learn the principles of scientific reasoning.

I would be far more willing to believe that the two cultures could coexist, however, were it not for the contamination of the "social sciences," which pose as sciences to the humanists, and humanities to the scientists, but which are not in fact much good as either. The poet who believes he knows something of science having taken "Sosh 103" and "Ed Stat" is far more dangerous than ever he would have been if he had remained ignorant.

Meanwhile, novelists have as much right to be called "experts" on human behavior as any social scientist, which is to say we can learn as much about our fellow humans from a good novel as from a sociological treatise; and I know which I would rather read. Similarly, the poet may find beauty in the theory of probability, and will learn something of the difference between data and evidence while studying it; "Stat for Social Scientists" teaches nothing, and is dull in the bargain.

When the social scientists are challenged as unscientific, their usual plea is that their subject matter is very complex and thus the methodology of physical science won't work. This is an interesting argument, but it would carry more weight if students of social science knew something of physical science's methodologies. Granted that the "social sciences" have an intrinsically more difficult job; is this any reason to abandon the tools of science?


Posted by: Physics Geek at 12:34 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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