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b. Are the Social Sciences Scientific?

Are the Social Sciences Scientific?

Scientific inquiry is a process that enables us to gain new knowledge with greatest likelihood of it being correct. As a starting point, a hypothesis, i.e., a proposed explanation of a phenomenon based on limited evidence, is proposed. This hypothesis is then tested by experiment, by gathering data, or by reference to existing experiments and data. If this supports the hypothesis, then it is proposed as a theory, the research is written up, subjected to peer review or checks by other specialists in the field, and published.

Together, the accepted theories and the way in which they are developed form a paradigm. Wikipedia defines a paradigm as “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitute legitimate contributions to a field.” An initial hypothesis is usually consistent with other theories in the prevailing paradigm, but sometimes not.

The philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, argued that science does not progress in a linear manner, but that the prevailing paradigm is relatively resistant to change, and undergoes periodic revolutions when the amount of contradictory evidence reaches a critical mass. In part, this resistance is brought about by human nature. I think it is fair to say that scientists and academic organisations are more objective than most. Nevertheless, they are still human, and the following traits will tend to introduce a bias in favour of the existing paradigm.

At the level of the individual, considerable effort is put into developing a theory. It becomes a part of his or her mental schema and is resistant to change. Furthermore, reputation and livelihood depend on any theory promoted as being correct. There will, therefore, be a personal vested interest in its acceptance and a resistance to any challenges. Obviously, acceptance is more likely if it is consistent with the prevailing paradigm.

Every organisation, including academia, is organised hierarchically, i.e., there are higher status individuals who command groups of lower status ones, and this assembles into a pyramidical structure. This structure is maintained by a process of trade or negotiation. Typically, a senior may delegate some of his power, influence, reputation, wealth, etc. in return for a subordinate’s support. Status is gained from the resources we control, and so, if one has many supporting subordinates, then one has greater status. With increasing status comes increasing power, influence, reputation, and wealth. Thus, there can be a personal vested interest in a theory and in the prevailing paradigm. Independence can be had by refusing to trade, but obviously this will result in a personal loss.

Experimental proof must be reproducible, and data must be readily accessible, so that others can check it. However, in the social sciences, there are several difficulties with this:

  1. Variables in the social sciences are often qualitative rather than quantitative, i.e., they are either true or not. Even if a variable is quantitative, there can be difficulties in measuring it. In physics it is relatively easy to determine the mass of an object and apply a number to it. However, in the social sciences, there are, for example, no objective ways of quantifying personality traits. These are probably more acquired than inherited, and so, more to do with the brain’s software than its hardware. This means, that they are unlikely to be revealed by MRI scans, etc. There are also issues with the reliability of questionnaires in which we report on our own personality.
  2. Experimental proof based on historical analysis can be flawed. History comprises reports and interpretations that can be highly subjective. In addition, there are often only a small number of examples to which we can refer.
  3. Experimental proof which relies on direct experience can also be highly subjective and is not reproducible.
  4. Experimental design is constrained by ethical considerations. For example, if one wished to prove that an event x always causes war, then it would be unethical to cause such an event.
  5. Finally, culture can have a strong influence on both hypotheses and the evidence used in their proof. For this reason, cross-cultural studies are becoming increasingly common. It is also the case that knowledge is a part of culture and so, new knowledge can alter culture. Thus, a feedback loop exists, i.e., culture affects social theory, which can, in turn, affect culture.

So, the paradigm for the physical sciences is very different to that for the social sciences. An analogy might be to regard the former as a criminal law case in which it is necessary to prove the defendant guilty. The latter can be regarded as a civil case, that is judged on the balance of evidence. This does, of course, mean that theories in the social sciences are less likely to be true than those in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, their pursuit is worthwhile because an understanding of human nature does, in general, and in the long term at least, appear to lead to an improvement in our circumstances.

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c. Schemata, Memes and Paradigms (1)

Schemata, Memes, and Paradigms (1)

All knowledge and belief, whether true or false, can be regarded as information. Treating it in this way removes any preconceived ideas or value judgements and enables us to consider it more objectively. Any place where information is held, for example in the mind of an individual or in a book, can be regarded as a medium of information. Again, this removes any preconceptions or value judgements.

Knowledge can be held by an individual in a schema (pl. schemata), by a group in a paradigm, or by a society in a memeplex. These three theories are discussed below.

Knowledge of the individual – Schemata

According to the British psychologist, F. C. Bartlett (1886 – 1969) the knowledge of an individual is held in schemata. These are mental structures each of which organises items of information about some aspect of the world and the relationships between them.

Knowledge, including ideas, beliefs, and values, must be remembered but Bartlett showed that the way in which we do so is affected by information that we already hold. So that new information is more consistent with our existing schemata we may omit anything thought to be irrelevant, alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations. Bartlett referred to this process as “effort after meaning”. Consistency of the information in our schemata is important to us. If we are unable to reconcile two contradictory items then we experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological stress. When this occurs, we do all that we can to resolve the contradiction and reduce our discomfort. For example, we may simply forget information which contradicts that already in our schemata.

The reason we modify information in this way is thought to be the mental effort involved in revising our schemata. According to the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, memory is a biological process involving growth or metabolic change in our neurons which, of course, requires both time and energy. Schemata are therefore resistant to change.

The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, (1915 – 2016), postulated that individuals hold information in three ways: enactively, as a recollection of muscle actions; iconically, in the form of visual, aural, tactile, taste or olfactory images; or symbolically, using symbols such as words to represent physical entities and the relationships between them. Information stored enactively can be communicated to others through training, imagery and spoken or written instruction, but this is a lengthly process. Information stored iconically can be communicated by the production of images, sounds, scents, etc., for example by painting, but this too is a lengthly process. Only information stored symbolically can be communicated relatively quickly and accurately. Hence our dependence on natural languages and formal languages, such as mathematics, for communication.

Knowledge of a Society – Memes

In common parlance, the word “meme” describes a visual image circulating on the internet. However, the term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, to describe a cultural idea, belief or symbol that can be transmitted from one individual to another through language, gesture, ritual, imitation, etc. Memes have a similar role to genes in biological evolution and are thought to be the basis of cultural evolution. They can mutate and their propagation is dependent on whether they improve the likelihood of a culture’s survival and reproduction.

Memes form clusters known as memeplexes which are the basis of a culture, political ideology, or religious dogma. Because of this, individual memes can “hitch a ride” on a broader and more successful memeplex. For example, homophobia might form part of a more generally acceptable system of religious beliefs and practices.

Memes are resistant to change in the same way as schemata. For the individuals that hold them, not only are biological changes in the brain required but negotiation and conflict with others may also be involved.

Knowledge of a Group – Paradigms

An example of a memeplex is a scientific paradigm. This is a generally accepted set of scientific beliefs and practices which prevail at a particular time. Major changes to a paradigm are known as a paradigm shift. In his book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, describes a paradigm shift as following four stages:

  1. Normal Science. A dominant paradigm exists and is universally accepted. However, as time progresses, scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by it.
  2. Extraordinary research. When sufficient anomalies emerge and cast doubt on the veracity of the paradigm a state of crisis results. Research of an exploratory nature is then carried out and new theories and experiments are produced to explain the anomalies.
  3. Adoption of a new paradigm. Competing new paradigms form and gain followers. However, they also gain detractors who are committed to the original. Eventually, a single new paradigm may gain acceptance if it predicts phenomena more successfully than the original.
  4. Aftermath of the scientific revolution. The new paradigm becomes institutionalised and dominant but the revolutionary process, which is not usually recorded, becomes forgotten.

In my next post, I will describe how we acquire new knowledge before later discussing the features that schemata, memes and paradigms have in common.