Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's just clear this up then.

As regular readers of my blog know I am something of a fan of science. Okay, that's understating matters: I love science. I think it's a very useful system and turns up some utterly fascinating information. I love science so much, I decided to become a scientist myself. Whether or not I'm successful in this endeavor remains to be seen but, hey, at least I have a fall back plan.

In any case, references to science play a fairly prominent role in classes that I teach. I think it's actually more or less impossible to explain sociology to students without at least touching on the fact that sociology is the scientific study of human society. This is important because people have been studying human society and human behavior for as long as there have been humans, but most of that study has been anything but scientific. The problem with this approach, as I have discovered, is that most students don't have the faintest idea what science really is.

Think about it for a moment: what is the experience of science for the average college freshman? They've been in "science classes" since they were little, but these classes primarily taught them facts. In biology they leared taxonomic systems, ideas about evolution, biological structure, and so on. In chemistry they learned about atoms, molecules, bonds, reactions, and so forth. In physics they learned equations, thought experiments, and perhaps some real bench experiments. We could go on with this, but I trust my point is more or less clear: most freshman think of "science" as being a whole mess of facts written down in books that need to be memorized for the test. The problem is, this is not actually science.

The misconception makes sense because most people learn "science" as "facts," but it does us a disservice. It's also a misconception that causes more difficulty in the social sciences than, say, in the physical sciences. And to explain why, allow me to use this comic strip that I have shamelessly stolen from Piled Higher and Deeper:

Interdisciplinary spats aside, this strip is motivated by the common difficulty many people have in distinguishing social science from humanities. Sadly enough, this is also true of some people within the humanities and the social sciences, but I digress. The difference isn't that the humanities and social sciences study different things- often we study the same things. It isn't that one of us is populated by smarter people than the other- often we're equally bright.* The difference is in how we go about answering our questions. Science is, ultimately, deeply committed to gathering data and trying to analyze it in as objective a way as possible. Furthermore, we adhere to fairly specific and demanding rules for how we should go about performing this data collection and analysis. The humanities are not so constrained and are not so guided. The issue isn't in what we attempt to do, but in how we go about doing it.

And this is the reality of science that I often find myself teaching my students. Science isn't a body of knowledge, but rather is a method for uncovering new knowledge and continually validating the old. Science isn't what we know, but rather how we know it. If we find that some fact is incorrect that doesn't mean that science itself has been overturned- indeed, the odds are good that science invalidated that fact in the first place- it simply means that a fact is untrue. This is a strength of science, that its only firm positions are in regards to how we should discover things, and is also a weakness, because it means that science is inherently limited. Science cannot tell you how you should live your life, it cannot tell you what is ultimately important, and it cannot give you wisdom. What it can do, however, is gradually allow us to build an amazingly accurate understanding of the world we live in. And that ability, in and of itself, makes science useful to have around. That we in the social sciences are confronted with this issue more often than other sciences is a simple consequence of what we study. I know relatively few philosophers who are really that interested in speculating on the existence of various types of particles included in the standard model. On the other hand, everyone is interested in the human condition, from philosophers and social scientists to truck drivers and ditch diggers.***

Social scientists are different from others with an interest in the human condition not because we care more, or are smarter, or are somehow better, but because we use the method of science to attempt to unravel social problems. We do this for the simple reason that science has proven itself, time and again, to be the single most powerful method for discovering fact ever conceived by humanity. Does this mean that non-scientific approaches have nothing to add? Of course not.

But you bet your ass that the contributions of social scientists are unique and valuable. And I, for one, am damn proud of that.

* HA! I kid. Social scientists are waaaay smarter.**

** I don't even know myself if I'm kidding.

*** Arguably, ditch diggers may be even more interested in the human condition than those of us with comfy office jobs, but that isn't the point.

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Blogger yli said...

my favorite "sociology misunderstood" conversation is with a harvard dentist: "oh, so when you're done you can go back to China and start a social revolution?"

Monday, September 10, 2007 2:57:00 PM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

Dude - "science" is a verb!!!

Monday, September 10, 2007 8:39:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Yan: If it makes you feel any better, I know someone who was asked to interpret dreams because she was a Sociologist. Yeaahhhhh...

Plain(s)feminist: That is absolutely brilliant! I think I'm going to have to use that in class.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger SARA said...

There's also a misconception among people as to what an artist is...many believe an artist draws/ paints all the time, but there's sooo much more to it than that... we're frequently uncovering new methods of producing/expressing and yet at the same time are well aware of the old and true methods that have alawys worked through the centuries...and if you have a BFA , they think you draw well...if you have an MFA you can really draw!
Given your definition that "Science isn't a body of knowledge, but rather is a method for uncovering new knowledge" could we say there's a "science" to everything in life? (ie, cooking, cleaning, making love, making wine and so on)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 9:03:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

S.S. Stone: Science is a method, but it is not the only method. This is to say that it is a very specific approach to determining fact. We could certainly use science to attempt to figure out how to do various things in various ways, but not all approaches to answering such questions are scientific. So, just because you're using a method, it doesn't mean that method is automatically science.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 9:31:00 AM  

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