This “Social Sciences” vs. “Natural Sciences” Rivalry — Enough is Enough, People!

Not your typical class— there are usually only ten of us.
Not your typical class— there are usually only ten of us.

Every single doctoral seminar I’ve been to here in Rome has begun with a comparison and contrast between the Social Sciences and the Natural Sciences, to no apparent end point. Discussion points vary from lecturer to lecturer, but the common underlying assumption is that social sciences are somehow inferior to the natural sciences whether in terms of subject matter, research methodology, accuracy of findings, duplicability of findings, or predictability.

I would rather not get into a discussion regarding the difference between the Natural Sciences (NS) and the Social Sciences (SS) simply because there would be no end point to the discussion, and worse, no scholarly value. Extrapolating from an imaginary NS vs. SS comparison, I’m liable transition to the difference between SS and the Humanities (H), which is the next logical step in the exercise, or perhaps to the difference between NS and H— a less explored field. And while we’re at it, why not discuss the difference between SS, NS, and H and something else? Sports Science usually falls outside the realm of NS— which brings us to another interesting topic, are sports scientists real scientists? “Sports Science, the next SS!”

We could then go into micro-discussions of the specific differences between elements of the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and so forth— for instance, which is better, biology of physics? What about among visual art, music, and literature? I’d suggest that we compare social science disciplines but we’ve already done that in class. Spoiler: Economics is the best social science, either history of linguistics is the worst. My field, international relations/political science, is somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy.

Here at LUISS, our doctoral program is split into tracks— Political Science and Political Theory. I wonder what would happen if we were to discuss the differences between “science” and “theory,” and subsequently which doctoral path is better based on the same terms mentioned earlier: subject matter, research methodology, accuracy of findings, or potential predictability? Would the people in the science track be better doctoral candidates than those in the theory track?

During my undergraduate program in Comparative Literature, we attempted to define literature in multiple classes and I found it a useful and vastly complex exercise. Four years of undergrad and three years of teaching later, we have yet to come up with a solid definition for literature! Nonetheless, attempting to define such an elusive concept was a way to wrap our minds around this thing called “literature.” That said, never in my seven years at the University of the Philippines have we discussed whether the humanities were inferior or superior to the political sciences or natural sciences. It would have been a futile and entirely subjective exercise. And if a consensus was eventually reached (for instance, that the humanities are “better” than the natural sciences), does this mean we should abandon all research in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and instead focus on the arts alone? Of if the opposite were deemed true, shall we drop all the humanities programs in universities and herd students into the sciences instead?

It all boils down to the same concept in the social sciences. If we can definitively say that the social sciences are somehow “less than” the natural sciences, does that mean our research is inferior? Does that mean social scientists should not pursue our research interests and either fade away into mediocrity or shift to a “better” field?

I don’t think anyone would ever answer yes to these questions.

This continual devaluation of the social sciences in comparison to the natural sciences, besides being irrelevant, is also causing great harm in terms of research. Many students are pressured to utilize obscure and often irrelevant graphs, charts, equations, and unnecessarily complicated models. The social sciences are also being “securitized”— if your research is important to national or international security, then your research is important! This is not to say that equations, models, and security studies do not have their place, of course they do. Students in the social sciences should just not use them in a vain attempt to make themselves feel that their research is valuable.

Until this week I was hoping that it was fluke, maybe we just happened to run into the few professors who used the “Social Sciences vs. Natural Sciences” debate as an introduction to their courses. All evidence pointed to this fact as the NS were usually left alone post-lecture (except for certain instances). This theory was shattered when, while discussing linear regression, a doctoral student asked the question “would this be the same in the natural sciences?” I knew at that point it wasn’t a fluke. This dichotomy or hierarchy or whatever-have-you has been drilled into students’ minds, and I wouldn’t stand for it.

Three bottom lines:

(1.)  Objectivity and relevance are not dependent on how many numbers/graphs/charts/models/wildly improbable end-of-the-world scenarios you have in your dissertation.

(2.)  Comparing the social sciences and the natural sciences is an exercise that leads nowhere. Stop doing it.

(3.)  If you are a professor of the social sciences, and you implicitly or explicitly say that our field is less important than the natural sciences or more important than the humanities, shame on you! If you are a student and you believe this, either examine your argument very closely and come up with your own conclusions or perhaps it’s time to shift fields.

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