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Texas Tech University

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Why do some people believe that the natural sciences are more "scientific" and / or important than the behavioral / social sciences?

I look at the problems of our world and firmly believe that behavioral and social scientists are just as important as natural scientists when it comes to having the potential to ameliorate most of these problems. Yet, from grant money to awards for achievement (e.g., Nobel Prize), the focus is always on the natural sciences.

I think part of the issue is that it is more difficult to know when a behavioral / social scientific discovery has made the world a better place. As an example, If a radiation portal monitor (based on natural science) prevents a dirty bomb from entering the Port of South Louisiana, the usefulness of radiation detection technology is obvious. If research on extremism attenuation (based on behavioral science) leads to policies that prevent terrorists from sending the dirty bomb in the first place, we will likely never be aware that this research led to our protection.

Do you believe that the behavioral / social sciences are under appreciated? If so, what can be done about it?

  • Aug 7 2013: What we can expect from our studies in different fields varies. Economics or psychology and it's problems are very different than physics or chemistry. They have different methodologies and issues.
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    Aug 6 2013: Human behavior is not predictable. Water will always boil at its boiling point but people won't always respond to stimulus in the predicted manner. Behavior is not quantifiable. Statistics can be accumulated and predictions made, but in each individual experiment there is no certainty regarding the subject's reaction. It's like trying to push a rope. Besides, anyone who goes to a shrink should have their head examined!
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    Aug 7 2013: Hi Cory - "Guns Up!"
    I deeply appreciate your point - and I agree! The biggest threat to civilization is not a natural disaster! The asteroid Apophis is not going to destroy us. Global warming will take at least a generation to threaten the worldwide climate. No, the most urgent National Security threat is what we are willing to do to each other & to ourselves.

    You have to remember that the events of 9/11 were motivated as a retaliation. The hijackers were retaliating for perceived injustices committed by the non-Muslim west against Islamic Civilization. Their view represents a bizarre distortion of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Even so, I believe that we still understand too little about these events - and our role in them.

    As an issue for Sociology - I think we understand too little about the social structures & cultural traditions that motivated these events. Many authorities simply turned a blind eye to the facts. I mean, when they found Bin Laden, where was he found? He was less than two miles from the National Military Academy. There are issues here that require much more study & investigation. We can't just dismiss our enemies as EVIL and/or demonic. There are social factors here that we have to understand before we can address them.

    Same thing for Psychology. The 9/11 hijackers were motivated to suicide as a religious & political act of defiance & revenge. Clearly, there was brain-washing involved at some level. TED published a video on that. They showed Taliban indoctrination of teenage boys. And as that intensified, preparation for eventual suicide became apparent.

    Cory, your point here could not be more important to all of us. The physical sciences are great if you want to build a rocket ship. But until we reach the point where we can build the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) space vessel and escape to the stars - there's no solution there. The core science addressing these problems are Social science.
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    Aug 7 2013: "Experience seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism has sworn never to draw them." george santayana
  • Aug 6 2013: I think its because the behavioural and political is constantly changing, and is a subject of interpretation on a different level than the natural sciences
  • Aug 11 2013: I can see the point: physics, for example, are very mathematical, and therefore should be much more straightforward than, for example, biology, and then that would be more straightforward that the social sciences. Also the social sciences are very important because they are all about us. But not straightforward. That would convince me quickly that the social sciences are much harder than the natural sciences. However, because there's this false sense that social sciences should be much easier, it attracts a lot of idiots. The load of idiocy might make the social sciences look quite unscientific and undisciplined. So, the way I see it, the social sciences are filled with idiots, overpopulated, and therefore the perception that they should be easier than the natural sciences. I think that the opposite would be true if we were much more serious about the methodologies and such in the social sciences, but the burden of so many inadequate people participating in them will be very hard to overcome.

    Unfortunately, the way education has been handled as of late has produced a similar effect in the natural sciences where we see lots of idiots trying to become scientists out of being unable to get into whatever schools they originally wanted. They become scientists for very wrong reasons. Therefore, soon enough idiocy will prevail in any of the sciences, not just the social sciences. It's a matter of population overload.
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      Aug 11 2013: What an unusual point of view.
      • Aug 13 2013: Yeah, but think about it. If most people in a field are idiots, we can't but expect that the standards in the field will be quite low.
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          Aug 13 2013: I understand you to mean that science, for example, is an area in which people are increasingly asserting expertise without the depth of understanding or learning that real expertise and sound scientific judgment require. Social science, particularly because of its lower mathematical requirements and the possibility of substituting "common sense" for research in making claims, may draw relatively more people less inclined to analytic rigor and research in the experimental sense..
  • Aug 7 2013: In my opinion, people believe that the natural sciences are more scientific than the social sciences because the natural sciences are more scientific than the social sciences.

    The social sciences are much more important, but they are still in their infancy.
  • Aug 6 2013: I agree the other 2 comments - the key to something being called a science is repeatability of an experiment. That is how something is proven correct or proven wrong (i.e. cold fusion as presented by the original paper)
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    Aug 6 2013: I have noticed that an increasing amount of National Science Foundation fellowship money is going into social science.

    I agree with Edward that the greater measurement problems in social science make the results of studies in that area much more ambiguous than findings in physical science.