January 17, 2010

What's the usefulness of social science?

Usually, when people dismiss science or social science I'm not too impressed. I'm not impressed for instance, when someone advocates the use of a certain therapy or coaching approach and says that it is not relevant to do research on it because (a) it can't be researched, (b) his personal experience is enough evidence, (c) it is not a matter of evidence but belief, etc. In those cases, I wonder cui bono?
Yet, the question of the usefulness of social science is an interesting one, as far as I am concerned. I once read a book with the title What's the use of science? (or something like that). I remember the book was interesting but hardly referred to social science. And have you seen this YouTube video about Richard Feynman on social science? He's someone to be taken a bit more seriously than the person I mentioned above.

My question is: What's the usefulness of social science? To what extent is Feynman right? To what extent is he wrong? What are examples of the usefulness of social science?
What are your ideas?


  1. Interesting video.

    I love the last part of the video, from 1:18 onwards.
    It is a call for doing good science - good science is hard, and just gathering some data does not mean you did good science; it is a first step, but from that to declare universal principles is to stretch it.

    I take the whole video as an invitation to be skeptical about results in social science: they might be preliminary results, yet there are experts who swear they are universal truth.

    On a more critical note, "social science" means a lot of things; I wish he had been more specific. The question about fertilizer (organic or not) does not seem to me to be a question that goes under the heading of "social science".

    Two more random thoughts:
    a) why is it we have different schools of therapy? After all, we do not have different schools of physics! We might have different interpretations of, say, quantum mechanics, but the math is there, it works, and it is accepted as THE theory of quantum mechanics.
    That is the reason I wrote the paper "sf protocols as evolutionary algorithms", that is my motivating force: it is not so much that I want to make SF "scientific", rather I'd like to contribute to the creation of a "science of therapeutic conversations", of which SF, I believe, is a part.
    b) I did observe in some Psychology departments a "Physics envy": to counter that, assumptions not yet validated by data were still framed in scientific jargon, as if we were talking about physics

    Have a great Sunday!

  2. I think that social sciences have potential usefulness, huge potential usefulness.
    The main problem is the material. In the case of social sciences, the material is man and it has been taboo to use man as a material.

    Applying the scientific method to matter is one thing. Applying the scientific method to a society is trickier.

    Feynman is right somehow, social sciences are less sciences. They have huge amounts of observation and very few experiments, very few theories and tests of those theories. At least this is how I view it.

    Also, the implications of the findings are dramatic. Imagine for a moment that a group of people do a experiment. Lets say they try to estimate the effectiveness of anacho-communism in a small community. The get the funding to create an autonomous community (local production of almost everything), they screen the participants for favorable psychological dispositions, they train them in nonviolent communication in order to minimize conflict inside the community. And then they start monitoring the process. And let's say that after 5 years, the experiment proves to be a huge success. What do you do then? Can you apply your findings to a bigger community? Would the powers that be allow such a thing?


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