Robin Hanson writes that “social scientists know lots” and then asks “Why then do so many people think otherwise?” Like Robin, I have worked in both the physical and social sciences and I have a few thoughts on the comparison, first a big thought, then several little thoughts.
Social scientists haven’t done much
Robin mentions various cognitive biases for why people disparage the social sciences. But he misses (I think) one key reason to disparage social science which is that social scientists may know a lot, but they haven’t done that much.
Compare to physical and biological sciences and engineering. Research in these areas has given us H-bombs, chemical fertilizers, laptop computers, vaccinations, ziplock bags, etc. etc. And social science has given us . . . what? An unbiased estimate of the incumbency advantage? The discovery of “nonattitudes”? A clever way of auctioning radio frequencies? The discovery that sumo wrestlers cheat? Not much “news you can use,” I’d say. I guess there’s been some work in epidemiology that’s been useful. Certainly some interesting things—I’d agree with Robin that “social scientists know lots”—consider Milgram’s experiment, or just the existence of polls which give us a sense of the distribution of opinions on lots of issues—but I don’t think this comes close to comparing to the achievements of the so-called hard sciences.
Social science is important, though. It gives us ways of looking at the world, for example in economics the ideas of Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, etc., frame how we think about policy questions. Perhaps because of their experience studying small effects and individual variation, social scientists are often good at understanding statistical ideas. For example, sociologists tended to see right away what I was getting at in my critique of a sociologist’s sloppy biological ideas on sex ratios, even while biologists themselves were fooled. But, to be sure, “ways of looking at the world” is pretty weak. The dollar auction is an impressive demo and the median voter theorem is cool, but it’s not like the hard sciences where, for example, you can point to a cloned sheep and say “hey, we did that!”.
Comparison to the study of history
Rather than comparing social science to physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, a more useful comparison might be to history. Historians know lots, both about specific things like what products were made by people in city X in century Y, or who signed treaty Z, and also about bigger trends in national and world events. But historians haven’t given us any useful products. History has value in itself—interesting stories—and helps us understand our world, although not always in a direct way. Once people start trying to organize their historical knowledge, this leads into political science. Again, it’s not giving you anything useful such as you’d get from the study of chemistry etc., but it’s the logical next step to organizing your knowledge. Assuming you accept that history is important and interesting in its own right.
Similarly, social psychology organizes what would otherwise be episodes of personal stories of social interaction, economics organizes what would otherwise be anecdotes of business, etc. I think this stuff is interesting (otherwise I wouldn’t do it), and ultimately I justify it by the way I justify the study of history.
We’re not in a war economy and people do all sorts of things that are less useful than the development of effective pesticides, high-grade plastics, etc. etc. To compare social science with physical/biological sciences and engineering is like saying to somebody, “Why do you repair lawnmowers? You should be a paramedic, that would save more lives!”
Various other thoughts
– I think physical science is more difficult than social science. Now, I can’t say that _all_ (or even most) physical science research is harder than most social science research. In fact, I would imagine that routine physical science research (for example, taking measurements in a lab, which I’ve done, way back when) requires care, such as the importance of sterilizing equipment and knowing the best time to use serological pipette, but less thought than routine social science research (for example, conducting field interviews). But to do the serious work, my impression is that the ideas in social science are much closer to the surface than in physical and biological sciences, which are just a lot more technical. I think it was a lot easier for me to slide from physics to political science than it would’ve been to go the other way.
– That said, I don’t think that, when physicists etc. decide to work in a social science, they necessarily make helpful contributions. I’m thinking here of social networks, where some physicists and applied mathematicians (for example, Duncan Watts) have done important work, but others have notoriously just assumed that their simplified models are relevant to reality.
– The boundaries of social science are not so clearly defined. Social science certainly includes political science, sociology, economics, and anthropology (for example). But only some of psychology is a social science, similarly with history.
– As a researcher who does a lot of work in social science, I do get annoyed at “hard science snobbery.” For example, I had a colleague where I used to work, a very nice guy, but he had this attitude that statistics applied to biology was the real thing, and applications in almost any other field were inferior. My feeling was: yeah, sure, but are you out there curing cancer?? Just because you work in a field where some people are doing important stuff, it doesn’t mean that you are.