Back when I taught at Berkeley, you could always get a reaction from the students by invoking Stanford. The funny thing is, though, if you’re at Stanford and mention Berkeley, nobody cares. You have to bring up Harvard to get a reaction.
Similarly, MIT students have a chip on their shoulder about Harvard, but Harvard students don’t really think much about MIT. There’s an asymmetry. Harvard and Yale, that’s more symmetric.
This came up the other day in conversation with a biologist who was saying that, when they consider the scientific method, they think of physics as the gold standard. But when we do social science, we often look up to biology.
The thing about social science is that it hasn’t produced much. We social scientists don’t have an inferiority complex; we really are inferior. Physics has produced locomotives, semiconductors, and the atomic bomb. Chemistry has produced amazing new materials. Biology has produced the coronavirus vaccine, and lots more. Social science has produced . . . what, exactly? A method of evaluating redistricting plans? Better polling? The Big Five? The Implicit Association Test? A better auction rule? Some cool marketing tricks? The past two hundred years of social science have given us nothing as useful and important as what gets produced every day in biology, chemistry, and physics.
But then the question arises: What’s the point of social science? Why do we do it at all? That’s a good question for me, given that I teach in the political science department and write papers on districting, voting power, social penumbras, gaydar, and all the rest.
Here’s my answer. We study the natural sciences because they help us understand the natural world and they also solve problems, from vaccines to the building of bridges to more efficient food production. We study the social sciences because they help us understand the social world and because, whatever we do, people will engage in social-science reasoning.
The baseball analyst Bill James once said that the alternative to good statistics is not no statistics, it’s bad statistics. Similarly, the alternative to good social science is not no social science, it’s bad social science.
The reason we do social science is because bad social science is being promulgated 24/7, all year long, all over the world. And bad social science can do damage.
In summary: the utilitarian motivation for the natural sciences is that can make us healthier, happier, and more comfortable. The utilitarian motivation for the social sciences is they can protect us from bad social-science reasoning. It’s a lesser thing, but that’s what we’ve got, and it’s not nothing.