Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Social Science as a Science

More debate has flaired up over whether social science is really a science. The source of it is this City Journal article by Jim Manzi. The article is actually quite good, and highlights a lot of the empirical limitations I talk about a lot on here. Some of the commentary is less persuasive in my mind.

Razib Khan and many of his commenters overstate their case against social science as a science in this post, with many of the commenters clearly ignorant of how social science does its work, and confusing political claims with the claims of social science.

Arnold Kling, not exactly a huge cheerleader for the "social science as science" crowd, at least focuses on the original Manzi article and some of the good points that it made.

One of the frustrating things about the people who don't think social science is a science is that they're so shifty as to why. It usually starts with a methodological point, criticizing our ability to establish counter-factuals (something that is very explicitly talked about among us - this isn't a huge secret or embarassment - it's a fact of life working with the data we work with), and our lack of experimentation. When you point out the plethora of other sciences that don't experiment it jumps to another of other justifications: (1.) predictive ability (the right response: we have better predictive ability than meteorologists, and why do you blame us for not predicting recessions exactly but you don't discount geology for not predicting earthquakes exactly), (2.) ideology (the right response: ummm... yes, ideological social science is not scientific - if you're going to claim all social science is ideologically determined I'd like to see some data to support that - since I'm a social scientists of course), (3.) multiple theories (the right response: sure, but again that's just a result of the complexity of the system under study and the lack of counter-factuals. Falsification is a lot harder. You see more theoretical positions arguing in paleontology than in the rest of biology, and you see more theoretical positions arguing in biology than in chemistry - it's a function of the data, not of the "scientificness" of what we're doing).

I think there are two primary reasons why people make the mistake of thinking that social science is not a science:

1. Sentimentality: People don't like to think of themselves as objects of study. The universe can obey laws, but humans can't. We're special. An evolutionary biologist won't come out and tell you that we're made in God's image, but the residual hubris of that cosmology remains for a lot of people. We're different and you just can't study us and our social system. You can scientifically study the social systems of lower organisms, but not humans.

2. Cargo Cultism: I'm going to turn Fenyman on his head here. A lot of natural scientists are huge practitioners of cargo-cultism. If you don't do science their way - if you don't reproduce the forms of their research, then you're not scientific. The best example of this is when people say that you need experimentation to be scientific - that's cargo cultism par excellance. They often don't think about how the nature of the subject determines the form of how you approach it. I've always said social science is most like biology - and probably the paleontology comparison is even better since for the most part we're looking at historical data. Physicists and chemists don't impose the forms of their science on paleontologists because it would be inappropriate - that would be cargo-cultism. Something goes out the window when humans are concerned. The Fenyman point was really unimpressive to begin with - I think people accepted what he said just because they respect his other work and it reinforced what they wanted to believe. What was his example? People who "sit at a typewriter" and make claims that "food grown with fertilizer that is organic is better for you than other food". What does this have to do with social science? This isn't even social science - it's an anatomical/medical example, and not even an example - it's something that Fenyman just made up off the top of his head. The idea that people would cite this as an authoritative point is more than a little disappointing. It was a poorly reasoned argument on Fenyman's part without any evidence and ultimatley it was probably symptomatic of the very cargo-cultism he thought he had identified in social science.

I have yet to see a good argument for why social science isn't a science. Everything I've ever read reduces to cargo cultism or sentimentality about human beings. None of it references the requirements for a science to be a science, and if it tries to it usually fails miserably.

40 comments:

  1. I think a lot of people get hung up on the predictive power especially - and they do it in a very odd way.

    I addressed this in the comment section of the Khan post yesterday - someone was savaging economists for not predicting this recession.

    I asked him - do you expect biologists to predict in advance which herds or pods of animals will succeed and which will fail - or which specific animals will succeed or fail in a population? Of course you don't - at best you can ascribe a probability. What is "scientific" about expecting that of economics"? That's voodoo science. You're not asking for a scientist you're asking for a fortune teller.

    We should expect economists to predict things somewhat in advance - but the ability to forecast is ultimately going to be a function of the complexity of the system (again - think of meteorologists or geologists).

    What we should consult is economics's ability to understand and describe the processes that do occur.

    Geologists don't predict earthquakes years in advance, biologists don't predict the failure of specific populations years in advance, and economists can't predict recessions well in advance. None of this has anything to do with the scientific standing of any of these disciplines. Geology, meteorology, economics, biology, etc. are not astronomy - they are different beasts.

    (Oh ya - and how many experiments to astronomers do?).

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  2. Astronomers do lots of experiments: http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=9760

    (In my astronomy classes in college my instructors were fond of lots of experiments.)

    Whether economics is a science is sort of beyond the point. What is "scientific" about economics heavily depends on a whole constellation of mental baggage associated with the sciences that economics that mimicked. That seems to be one of the basic problems with economics as a science.

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  3. "...biologists don't predict the failure of specific populations years in advance..."

    Actually, they do. Now those predictions may not be terribly accurate, but biologists do make those sorts of predictions.

    "...and economists can't predict recessions well in advance."

    Do you mean here can't or don't? I would imagine that they do - whether they can or not is another matter.

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  4. Xenophon -
    I'm not going to get into another argument with you where you make up what I said. And perhaps that's not what you're getting at here, but I just want to put you on notice that that's not what I'm doing today.

    Astronomy does some experimentation. I'm sure all sciences do some experimentation. The observational empiricsm to experimental empiricism in astronomy, though, is high - higher probably than economics. Besides, the experiment described isn't strictly an astronomical experiment - although it does obviously have applications to astronomy. But I'm certainly not saying and have not said that astronomers don't experiment.

    As for the biologist's predictions I encourage you to read the portion of the sentence you decided to quote in the context of the entire comment, where I discussed making such predictions as probabilistic statements, the relevance of the complexity of the system under study, and simply the point that while we may find it useful to try to make these predictions to the extent that we can, that is not the task of any of these sciences so much as it is to understand the process whereby (1.) earthquakes happen, (2.) recessions happen, (3.) populations die out, (4.) individual animals die. You can't copy and paste in cargo-cult fashion the role of prediction in, say, astronomy, to the role of prediction in other sciences.

    "Do you mean here can't or don't? I would imagine that they do - whether they can or not is another matter."

    As I said in my comment, they do and can probabilistically but you've gotta be cognizant of the error of the estimates (hence the "well in advance" point that you seem to be ignoring).

    Anyway - I'm not going to get roped into what you wanted me to have said like I did in that biology discussion the other day (which I actually did the leg-work for in looking at modeling in journals - leg work that you weren't even willing to undertake and just asserted I was wrong about).

    This will have to pass as a clarification - all sciences do some experimentation. The degree of experimentation and the prospect of prediction is by no means a determinant of being a science (and even if it were, my point is that while economics does less of both than, say, physics - it is still more adept at experimentation and prediction than other sciences... but that's a distraction anyway - that's cargo-cult science. Every science is somewhat different in each of these elements).

    Sentimentality and cargo-cultism - that accounts for almost all the concerns that natural scientists express.

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  5. From your point 3: You see more theoretical positions arguing in paleontology than in the rest of biology, and you see more theoretical positions arguing in biology than in chemistry - it's a function of the data, not of the "scientificness" of what we're doing

    Surely, though, the theoretical complexity of the social sciences could suggest a sliding scale, couldn't it? I think this is a lot of what's happening when people say it's not a science. It's not that there aren't scientific aspects of social-scientific endeavor, but the task is less unalloyed than something like chemistry.

    If you were to say that the complexity-- and therefore the relative inadequacy of scientific work on the stuff of social life-- doesn't effect the "scientificness" of the work, would you also extend the label "science" to other fields that are traditionally placed within the humanities?

    Speaking from theology, for instance (a good extreme test case if there ever was one), there have been a lot of fascinating cases made for theology as a science in the twentieth century. One that I'm quite partial to is that made by Karl Barth, when he basically argued that the most scientific theology would employ the rigorous method appropriate to its object of study. If one's object of study is God, then inquiry concerning God will be tailored to the data... that is, a theologian must be receptive and subject to the Word of God in order to best understand God.

    Is this argument really any different than yours here-- that the "scientificness" of a particular inquiry isn't in question, but rather it's more a "function of the data?"

    I'm fine with that, personally. I'm with Xenophon (and I imagine you are too, in many ways) that the bare question of whether something is a "science" is somewhat beside the point. But on the standards that you set here, wouldn't the "data" of something like theology, or literary criticism, or musical composition, be what really distinguishes it from the "harder" social sciences? If you're going to identify a spectrum from economics to paleontology to chemistry, is there a line in the sand that comes before the humanities, or must you also acknowledge that the spectrum can extend even further as we talk about what science is?

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  6. Daniel,

    "I'm not going to get into another argument with you where you make up what I said."

    I didn't do anything like that. Why the drama?

    "As I said in my comment, they do and can probabilistically but you've gotta be cognizant of the error of the estimates (hence the "well in advance" point that you seem to be ignoring)."

    Look at your comment. It is don't then don't then can't. It is a strangely constructed sentence.

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  7. I think a lot of the reason why economists, sociologists, etc. want the moniker "science" is due to the signaling and prestige the term offers. But does it really matter whether it is called a science or not outside of these considerations? I mean, I guess it might matter to a Platonist...

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  8. "I didn't do anything like that. Why the drama?

    No drama - it happens quite regularly and I just want to let you know that I don't have time to parse every phrase today.

    The term itself isn't the point, Xenophon. It is a question of what is being done and how much reliance we should place on the findings of economics. Think about the reaction if you told a physicist "you don't do science". The primary concerns they'll raise aren't matters of prestige - the concern is (1.) it's an objectively strange and wrong accusation, and (2.) it's an opening for psuedoscientific claims about the universe.

    That's the problem when people make claims like this about the social sciences.

    I don't really understand the prestige point anyway. Philosophers are prestigious. Artists are prestigious. Entrepreneuers are prestigious. I'm not sure why you're saying that economists wouldn't feel prestigious if they weren't scientists. Why would that be a prestige downgrade?

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  9. I'm not sure why you're saying that economists wouldn't feel prestigious if they weren't scientists. Why would that be a prestige downgrade?

    Well that's obvious... it matters because it matters to social scientists.

    Not saying I agree or disagree with Xenophon about this psychologizing point, but it seems perfectly reasonable whether or not prestige is found elsewhere than in science. So long as economists want scientific prestige, the point still makes sense. It's a question of whether they want to be prestigious in Greenwich Village or MIT, not of whether they want to be prestigious, full stop.

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  10. Evan -
    I'm not sure what you're trying to say. If you're just saying that there are people who do unscientific research that are associated with the social sciences, then I definitely agree with you. Some theoretical perspectives will openly tell you they aren't scientific. I'd be suspicious about substantial portions of sociology, anthropology, and political science for this very reason. I think psychology and economics are the only ones that we can say have dominant scientific outlook.

    So sure, there are interlopers so to speak. I think that's different from saying the discipline itself isn't scientific. But there are definitely non-scientists working in the discipline.

    A lot of this has to do with the added problems of complex systems and observational data. That accounts for some of it. But a lot of it is also the temptation of ideology.

    Even good, scientific social scientists have every right to have a value system and ideological perspective. But of course this always introduces the risk that positive and normative statements will become entangled.

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  11. Daniel,

    Plenty of drama.

    I think you just have to accept that what the social sciences do is fundamentally different from what the natural sciences do. I don't believe that makes one inferior to the other.

    "Philosophers are prestigious."

    Since when?

    "Why would that be a prestige downgrade?"

    Less access to the ear of the state. These days economists hold the same position historians did in many states during the 19th century.

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  12. As for the Barth argument - I always find it interesting when you flesh it out, and perhaps there's something to be said for using the language of science to think through those issues, but I don't see how it is "science", rather than simply rigorous critical thinking.

    The form of science we expect to see is a function of the data. You can see this even if you restrict yourselves simply to the natural sciences.

    I'm not sure the best way to express this right now, but ultimately I think it also requires some sort of materialism. I mean, when you speak of "data" what are you really talking about? You're talking about tradition - textual evidence, etc. - right? I could see an anthropological or sociological study of God as a product of human social interaction that is legitimately scientific - just like it would be legitimately scientific to investigate the abstract thought of any organism. However, I don't think that would be satisfying from a theological perspective because God himself is not the object of study - rather, the traditions associated with the idea of God are.

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  13. I'm not sure what you're trying to say. If you're just saying that there are people who do unscientific research that are associated with the social sciences, then I definitely agree with you

    Most of my comment, I think, was trying to say that what counts as "scientific" could, on your explanation here, be extended into the humanities as well.

    But my point about social science being a more alloyed scientific endeavor had to do with the complexity of the data... that is, the scientific work becomes more and more hampered as the complexity of the object of study increases, and on this basis some might reasonably refer to the social sciences as "unscientific". I wouldn't, I'm just saying that there's some sort of sense to it.

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  14. This will inform this conversation somewhat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flyvbjerg_Debate

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  15. but I don't see how it is "science", rather than simply rigorous critical thinking.

    I guess I don't see what you've added to this definition. What else is science? Things like experimentation that you've brought up have also been qualified, and don't strike me as really essential to "science". Isn't science just rigorous critical thought?

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  16. I think you're missing what I'm trying to say if you think I'm saying there is a spectrum. There is no spectrum of science. There are different kinds of science. Perhaps there is a spectrum of complexity in the data that prevents the identification of a counter-factual. But my whole point is that each end of that spectrum is equally "scientific" - it's just going to have different forms of study. We shouldn't engage in cargo-cultism and assume that physics's approach is appropriate for all sciences.

    So literary criticism - where is the objective data you're looking at? What kind of questions are you answering? If you're talking about language development and evolution I suppose that could be a scientific endeavor. If you're talking about simply understanding, critiquing, or appreciating the text I fail to how that's the same thing.

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  17. "So long as economists want scientific prestige, the point still makes sense."

    But Evan, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be a matter of assuming his own conclusions then.

    Obviously if it is considered prestigious than to not be a scientist is a loss of prestige. I know that. I'm questioning the assumption.

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  18. Could you explain what the difference is between examining a text and examining language development/evolution, then? What would make one inquiry scientific and the other not?

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  19. "I think you just have to accept that what the social sciences do is fundamentally different from what the natural sciences do. I don't believe that makes one inferior to the other."

    Yes:

    1. Fundamentally different
    2. Wholly scientific
    3. Not inferior

    No one ever said anything about superiority. You're the one attaching value judgements like "prestige" to the sciences - I really don't think that comes into play. It's a matter of understanding what is being done.

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  20. But Evan, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be a matter of assuming his own conclusions then.

    Correct. I'm not saying he's right or wrong, I'm simply saying that his point is about the subjective wishes of economists within the prestige structure of various communities, so I don't see why is argument is incoherent simply because there are other avenues to prestige elsewhere.

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  21. "You're the one attaching value judgements like "prestige" to the sciences - I really don't think that comes into play."

    Then you don't understand human beings very well then.

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  22. Oh, and a further point: if the social sciences are scientific, they are not scientific in the way that the natural sciences are. I ultimately think that is the kernal of the problem here - social scientists often want to be treated as if they are physicists - indeed, that was the original promise of social science - that it would be just like the natural sciences, but would just be about humans. That has not turned out to be the case, yet it remains one of the dominant ways of thinking about social science amongst social scientists.

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  23. "I guess I don't see what you've added to this definition. What else is science? Things like experimentation that you've brought up have also been qualified, and don't strike me as really essential to "science". Isn't science just rigorous critical thought?"

    And ultimately, this is what we need to do first - define the terms. It's what I critiqued Khan on on his blog, so its a fair point.

    I would argue that science is a process of knowledge creation by observation, the formation of testable (or ideally, falsifiable) hypotheses about the nature of the object of study, the testing of the hypothesis against observed evidence of some sort, the evaluation of that hypothesis on the basis of that empirical exercise, and the reformulation of the hypothesis for future testing on the basis of those findings.

    That's pretty rough, but it's got the elements.

    It's not a spectrum - it's either done or it's not done. I don't see how the humanities fit into this. This isn't just "critical thinking". There are elements here that have always been considered essential, that are in the social science, but aren't in the humanities. You can call the texts "data" all you want, it doesn't really make the difference.

    Unless, as I said earlier, you're looking at the development of language or something like that. Presumably there are some projects that could be pursued scientifically.

    One exception I should raise is history. Presumably, history could be formulated in a way that could conform to this (historical anthropology, economic history, or natural history for that matter). It all depends on how its done. Some people do history like storytellers, chroniclers, and biographers. The information I'm collecting on Lovecraft right now is of this variety of history. Some history is more scientific (ie - Friedman and Schwartz's "Monetary History of the United States").

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  24. Xenophon - could you flesh out the "social scientists want to be like physicists" point? That's a little vague.

    Some people are just refering to Samuelson's use of optimization when they make statements like that. I have no idea why that makes economists "want to be like physicists". Math is math.

    But maybe you're saying something different from that.

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  25. "I would argue that science is a process of knowledge creation by observation, the formation of testable (or ideally, falsifiable) hypotheses about the nature of the object of study, the testing of the hypothesis against observed evidence of some sort, the evaluation of that hypothesis on the basis of that empirical exercise, and the reformulation of the hypothesis for future testing on the basis of those findings."

    This definition is so broad as to include just about anything.

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  26. Daniel,

    I'm talking about the behavior of social scientists and the history of that behavior.

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  27. "Could you explain what the difference is between examining a text and examining language development/evolution, then? What would make one inquiry scientific and the other not?

    Well what is a text? It's just something someone wrote down, right? Critical reading of that text is simply an exercise in trying to comprehend and appreciate an idea that someone was expressing in writing. That's great, but there's no theorizing about anything (what would you theorize about?), there's no test of that theory, there's no replication. It's simply an appreciation of a piece of information you've come across.

    Now, what you could theorize about is, say, the growth of the way that people communicate. We theorize about the way animals communicate, for example - what's the difference with humans? So for this project you may use texts as pieces of data just like you would use whale recordings. You might even get into what could be thought of as textual criticism if you want to understand the information that is communicated in those texts (just like we might try to understand the information that is communicated in whale calls).

    But Evan, when you do textual criticisms you're trying to appreciate and understand a thought that some guy had hundreds or thousands of years ago. You're engaging in communication, but I'm not sure what you're investigating scientifically. Reading and understanding doesn't contain any of the essential elements of science - theorizing about a phenomenon, data analysis to test the theory, re-formulation of the theory, retesting, etc. If you're just reading a book and getting meaning out of it there's none of this.

    This isn't to say that texts can't be data - they are for many investigations.

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  28. I'm with anonymous, but I don't think it's a huge deal... "science" itself is a broad term. And while particular usages of it may be more specific, it really just boils down to "inquiry ending in knowledge". Usually, when there are debates about what is really scientific, the debate pivots on what counts as "knowledge".

    Which is why I don't think Xenophon's point about prestige is so easily dismissed, and I think that, while we all may value the poet and the painter and the philosopher, it's a bit too optimistic to act as if practitioners of disputed territory (such as the social sciences) would do just as well with one sort of prestige as another. I'm not sure that's the case, because the debate tends to be more about the label "science" or any methodology. It's usually (at least as I read the history) a matter of what conclusions are acceptable to a critical community as knowledge.

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  29. "I'm talking about the behavior of social scientists and the history of that behavior."

    I'm sorry to say I'm not sure this really clarifies anything at all Xenophon :-/

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  30. "That's great, but there's no theorizing about anything (what would you theorize about?), there's no test of that theory, there's no replication."

    I could take Thoreau's "Walden" and present all manner of theory's about the text and then compare them to his Maine woods text. Not to engage in logomachy - but I don't believe you are providing us with all that useful of a definition of what science is.

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  31. because the debate tends to be more about the label "science" or any methodology.

    should read...

    because the debate tends to be about more than the label "science" or any methodology.

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  32. if you don't do science their way - if you don't reproduce the forms of their research, then you're not scientific. The best example of this is when people say that you need experimentation to be scientific - that's cargo cultism par excellence.

    Sounds like someone I know... ;)

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  33. Now wait a minute Anonymous and Evan - it is broad and it was just a rough cut, but how does this include "just about anything"? Evan, you never do any of those things in anything of yours that I've ever read. So however broad that definition is, it certainly doesn't include theology.

    As for it boiling down to what counts as "knowledge" I have to disagree with that too. The scientific method as a practical matter relies quite a bit on induction. In that sense, science doesn't necessarily produce reliable knowledge, but it may produce very useful knowledge. But you can have all kinds of knowledge that isn't scientific. Much of philosophy, for example. Any deductive knowledge isn't determined by the scientific method. Knowledge of history - of what happened in a particular place at a particular time - is legitimate knowledge but not scientific knowledge. Knowledge of the law - of what one group of people have codified as a normative standard and how it applies in circumstances - is something that we can legitimately "know", but that we do not "know" scientifically.

    So there are a lot of very important things that don't fit into this definition of "science", and there is a considerable amount of legitimate knowledge that isn't derived from this definition of the scientific method.

    So how on Earth do you and Anonymous make these claims????

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  34. Evan,

    I'd say that the social sciences are constantly fighting a battle against being seen as the ugly step sister of the natural sciences. However, that seems in large measure to be the result of the social sciences trying to act like they are the natural sciences. Having been in both worlds in my life I have to say that the social sciences are never going to win that game.

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  35. "I don't believe you are providing us with all that useful of a definition of what science is"

    Well I just came up with it off the top of my head. I would say it is useful, but certainly problematic, and the only standard for judging something a science that anyone in this comment string has come up with so far.

    So by all means, please refine it.

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  36. Daniel, perhaps I'm thinking too etymologically here, but when you speak of "scientific knowledge", the terms strikes me as redundant. It's the close association of science with knowledge of any sort that makes me a bit skeptical of these sorts of science debates.

    Another consideration, alongside Xenophon's mention of the competition between hard and social scientists... medical science might be an interesting field to consider. There's a hell of a lot in medicine that isn't the least bit scientific, but it's still often regarded by the general public as a highly scientific thing (obviously chemists or biologists whose work feeds into medicine are more clearly a part of the hard sciences, but I'm talking here about folks with M.D.'s).

    My sense is that the medical community has succeeded in maintaining "scientific prestige" because of an overwhelmingly successful professionalization process, because of lobbying and Big Pharma, etc. It may be that the lack of such machinery has made the case for social scientists (purely as a matter of PR) less successful than medical practitioners, who might really be more involved in a craft than science.

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  37. "You speak of "scientific knowledge", the terms strikes me as redundant."

    Really?!?!?! It seems to me we know a lot that we don't know scientifically.

    I'm still having a rough time with Xenophon's claim. It's been repeatedly left amorphous. I've never, in any of my education or experience, seen any attempt to emulate or idolize other kinds of scientists. So I'm simply not aware of what he's refering to. I've seen people make that argument a lot, but as an accusation as he's using it. I've never seen anyone actually doing what he's accusing people of doing. Maybe in the early days they waxed poetic about physics. I could see that. I'm not really sure what the relevance of that is. In the early days natural scientists said dumb things too. So?

    Medicine, from what little I know, seems to be a mix of practical knowledge and scientific knowledge. To a large extent its counseling and in the case of something like surgery an art too. So its a mix of things. I wouldn't say its "unscientific", but a lot of different forms of knowledge come into play, sure.

    And the same can be said of economics. Social science is a science - but what social scientists do day in and day out is a mix of normative and positive work. That's fine. It's like applied science - it's a mix of science and art/invention. I don't see why that's really a problem. Our lives are always a mix of activities and pursuits.

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