2014-03-25

Paradigms, Part II - Social "Science"

Robin Hansen has a recent post about math-types who minimize the value of the social sciences because they don't take them seriously enough.

I have a social science background, and to a lesser extent, a mathematics background. My thoughts on the subject are probably less relevant than the thoughts of those people who are better-studied in one or both of those areas. Still, my vanity compels me to offer an opinion here.

It's Math
In my experience, hard sciences are applied logic, the most formal and generalized of which is pure mathematics. If you can understand pure mathematics, then you can understand any other field or discipline. But the reverse is not true: There are many, many more social scientists who do not understand pure mathematics than there are mathematicians who do not understand social sciences.

This isn't just a relic of the fact that academics tend toward logic, and thus tend toward mathematics. Logic is the underlying basis of all human thought processes. Philosophy in its original form (think ancient Greece) fused mathematics and ethics and astronomy and biology all into one glorious pool of reasoning. But that sort of thing can only go so far. Eventually, "philosophy" as a stand-alone discipline lost its steam under the realization that nearly all of the difficult problems were either better suited to scientific analysis (and thus, the question was one of science, not philosophy at all), or that it was really just a shortcoming of language. (See "the paradox paradox.")

When I say philosophical problems are a shortcoming of language, I mean that the problem is imaginary. For example, the color of uncooked salmon meat has no formal name in the English language. We could say that it's "pink," but it's not really pink. We could say that it's "orange," but it's not really orange. We could say that it's "red," but it's not red, either. Here a philosopher would be tempted to say that either salmon has no color or that color itself is a complex phenomenon (or an emergent one, am I right?). But both of those statements would be wrong, because the color of salmon exists and we call it "salmon-color" even though that's kind of stupid. The problem isn't with the color; the problem isn't even with the idea of color.

The problem is simply that English doesn't have a word for that color. Big deal? Call it "tau" and forget it was ever a problem. It doesn't matter.

Gradually, "philosophy" dissolved into logic, mathematics, and science. As formal logic became more rigorous, people seemed to notice that it was just math, and that's how we understand the field of "Logic" today. So then there were two: mathematics, and science.

Physicists have done the most work in revealing that science is basically just math. All of the important work in physics these days is mathematical conjecture confirmed by physical experimentation. The various other hard sciences out there - chemistry, biology, etc. - do not look much different from physics. At this point, the sub-discipline you're interested in is really just a specialization of the same thing, aka "science," aka mathematics.

Social Science
Finally we have social sciences. Social sciences started out as theories of human behavior, as observed by grouping things differently. We can look at a person's individual motives, in which case we're talking about psychology. We can look at a person's motives as he interacts with a group, in which case we're talking about sociology. We can ignore motives and focus on the quantifiable result of human behavior, in which case we're talking about economics or possibly political science.

But when we get right down to it, all this social scientific theorizing amounts to crafting paradigms, or way to view human behavior so that we can better understand it.

I don't deny that there is a psychological component to the world, as there is an economic one, and a sociological one, etc., etc. But when we engage in social science reasoning, we're not describing the profound truths of the universe, we're using paradigms to simply describe the many different ways human beings interact with each other.

That is to say, we might gain additional insight into a situation if we look at it "sociologically," but I don't think we'll ever come across a good predictive model for "quantum sociology." In other words, we can describe human behavior through the paradigm of modern sociology, but we don't derive empirical truth from this. It becomes the academic equivalent of poetry. It sounds nice because it resonates with us, but it won't teach us any secrets of the universe.

Similarly, we can describe human behavior in English or French, and our choice might connote something different in some specific way, but this is more relevant to the inadequacy of language than it is to the validity of our theory.

Conclusion
All that verbiage to say something simple: Social sciences are paradigms, useful for learning, but not otherwise relevant to the universe. Once you've learned what you need to learn from Weber's theories, you should think of them as analogies or talking points, not concrete truths of human behavior. That's the purpose of social science. But if you're looking for concrete truth, you need to learn the underlying logic and then move on to empirical science.

The rest is just prose.