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A note on natural science and social science

Doting dads have small bollocks. That was the news story preoccupying the news cycle for half a day last week. You may recall it appeared to “scientifically” prove a correlation between the size of a man’s balls and whether he’s a doting dad or not. Small balls = good dads. Giant bawbags = bad dads. Of course, it did nothing of the sort. How it got through peer review for a prestigious scientific journal when a simpleton like me drove a cart and horses through their sampling beggars belief.

This isn’t to say there is no correlation, it’s just that they have not proved it because they failed to rule out all kinds of factors that might have a bearing on their result. If one was being uncharitable, you might say they found the result they were looking for. But I am going to be generous and say their error arose from social scientific illiteracy.

Usefully, the comment left underneath the original post summed up this problem perfectly. It read:

It might be that the reason that neuroscientists can do sociology, but the sociologists cannot do neuroscience is the same reason why fighter pilots can ride bicycles, but cyclists can’t fly fighter aircraft.You would be surprised at the amount of work that neuroscientists have done on the effects of oestrogen/androgen neuronal sculpting during brain development.

Still, stick to what you know and keep cycling.

Smuggery is never an attractive feature, but it’s fatal when hitched to stupidity. Small wonder our correspondent hit the anonymity button. In short, this is anti-scientific bupkis pretending to be super serious science. Their position, if it can be dignified as such, opposes natural science to social science. There is no understanding of the scientific division of labour, of the various specialisms it contains and the limits of those methods. A chemist, for example, would not lecture a biologist on the workings of the cardio-vascular system. But that isn’t to say chemists and biologists wouldn’t find cause to occasionally collaborate on a problem of mutual interest. The two disciplines have overlapping areas of concern and can fruitfully work together to generate new scientific knowledge.

Like natural sciences, social science has its own intellectual division of labour. ‘Social science’ is more than just sociology. And like chemistry and biology, its disciplines can on their own and in collaboration with one another provide knowledge about the social world that is completely different to that produced by natural sciences. As I noted in reply to our blockhead, our neuroscientists can slice and dice some grey matter on a slide and gawp at it down a microscope. But however hard you look you will not find there the structure of Roman legions, the key to marketing beauty products or the production process for the internal combustion engine.

There have been many attempts to directly apply natural scientific methods to the domain of social analysis many times over the last two centuries, and without fail they have come unstuck. The behaviour of people as individuals and collectives is its own province. But that isn’t to say social science and natural science can’t collaborate. For example, no social scientist collaborating with our testicle-measuring team would have let their bad science go forward for publishing without testing social variables and providing robust sampling. But because they didn’t, an opportunity to advance the understanding of the complex interface between the biological body and society was missed.

In short, natural science vs social science is pointless and a recipe for bad knowledge. But recognising separate domains of analysis, research practice and their limits, that way lies the path to collaborative wisdom.


This post first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist


  1. David Pavett says:

    The gonad measuring boffins are, as Phil Burton-Cartledge suggests, talking bollocks.

    I agree also with PB-C’s argument that each science has its own domain and cannot be reduced to the terms of the domain of another science. This is especially important regarding the matter of trying to explain human social behaviour in terms of genetics or neurology. The problem is that this sort of reductionism is to be found virtually everywhere one looks (newspapers, magazines, TV, learned journals, everyday conversation). To avoid this nonsense we need to be clear about the foundations of social science and what it is that makes humans different from the molecules of which they are made. Social science that rejects such reductionism is social science which can give support to those of us who believe that the form of society is not fixed by nature but determined by ourselves (albeit within the bounds of the materially possible) and can therefore be radically different from what it is now.

  2. David Walker says:

    Some may read this as an argument against methodology but it’s surely the contrary…the more sophisticated social scientists are about the methods by which they (and anyone else) can say credible things about behaviour (including parenting) the better… and that means more social scientists being familiar and comfortable with quantitative methods, not because they are the be all and end all but because without understanding the basis on which a thick slice of social science’s being in the world has to rest, social scientists can end sounding limited and even peevish. To know quantitative methods is to know its limits.

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