Young Science

Psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history, economics, political science.

Biological sciences, earth sciences.



Read one way, this is how sciences are commonly ranked on a Mohs scale of scientific snobbery. Real sciences, hard sciences, are at the bottom. Soft, squishy, fake sciences are at the top.

Read another way, this is both an inverted history of science and a ranking of the complexity of measurement.

A History of Complexity
Physics was one of the first sciences to be studied scientifically and the first science in which many of the fundamentals were discovered. Why? Because physics, at least the parts that most people learn, has the simplest subjects to test. Kinetics are visible. Pressure can be felt. Wave interaction is already present in our environments, ready to be observed.

Chemistry was harder. We can’t see or feel the building blocks of matter. We can’t see the bonds that create matter with its own discrete properties from two or more unrelated elements. We can’t directly assess molarity. Chemistry had to build the tools to do the very basics, even as it determined what those basics were. That put it far behind physics.

Biological and earth sciences are more difficult yet. Not only do scientists have to study all the parts of complex systems in order to understand the systems, but they are also constrained in two important regards. They have to observe the system without changing it enough to make their observations invalid, and they have to exercise ethics in how they manipulate the system. These things can be done, but they require additional tool development, including the development of complex systems math, which makes for slower progress.

Then we come to our “squishy” sciences, the social sciences. All the difficulties of biological and earth sciences apply, only more so. These are studies of complex systems made up of complex systems. Observation of social phenomena is social phenomena itself. The ethics of personal and political interference are extremely touchy. The sheer number of variables that the math needs to be able to accommodate is intimidating.

Does that mean that the social sciences can’t develop the tools they need? No, no more than the biological sciences can’t. What it does mean is that developing these tools should be expected to take time. How long? I don’t know. How long did it take physics to figure out how to observe the universe free of the interference of our atmosphere?

The Forgotten History
One thing that hard-science snobs like to point to as evidence that the social sciences aren’t real science is the current influence of politics on the various fields. For example, in the current economic situation, people cite the influence of libertarianism on economics. Others have pointed to single-culture-centric definitions of mental normalcy.

Both are valid critiques of the state of the field, but they have no bearing on whether economics or psychology are sciences. Politics affect every kind of research. They always have, however pure someone might think their brand of science is. Cosmology has historically had some killer debates (literally) about theory, based on politics. It got over them with time. Do we judge genetics by eugenics or physics by the atom bomb?

The social sciences are very young, they seek to understand phenomena at several interrelated levels, and they face the additional challenge of having to ask the balls for permission before dropping them off the tower. This means that current results are of dubious universal applicability. It does not mean these are not “real” sciences.

Nor does it mean the people theorizing and testing with the limited tools at their disposal are not real scientists. Some of the people clinging to theories against all evidence may not be scientists, but the evidence against most theories is slim or mixed at this early stage of the game. It will take more work and more data from the empiricists to drive the irrational theorists out, just as it always has for every other science.

They’ll probably do it faster if they’re allowed and expected to sit with the big kids at the “science table” instead of being pushed away. They’ve earned more credit than they’re usually given on that score, even if they do have plenty of work left to do. And it can only help to steep the kiddies in each field in a culture of rigor.

Young Science

7 thoughts on “Young Science

  1. 1

    Interesting post. A few observations and questions.Is statistics and probability a science separate from mathematics, and in turn, does math have a place on this spectrum? I ask in part because some of the important numerical tools used in a wide range of sciences are statistical, mathematical, or probabilistic. Just like vampire drinking your blood makes you a vampire, perhaps the fact that the p-value worship of many of the sciences derives from unexpected sources (for instance) may contaminate one ‘science’ with another.Archaeology is today considered to be a social science, yet it predates most of the other sciences. The first archaeology was done in the 15th century, and that was not a freak event. There is record of a fair amount of it being done in the 16th and 17th century, and of course quite a bit from the 18th century onwards.One of the concepts you bring up is sometimes called “vertical integration.” This phrase has an obsure and interesting (to me) history, but never mind that. It is used to describe the relationship between basal and derived sciences in terms of violation of what one might call ‘laws’ (though I don’t like that term mself). So the tenets of physics can not be violated by chemistry, but there are phenomena (chemical) that you can’t really describe only with physics. Various kinds of derived chemistry sit on ‘top’ of chemistry, and on top of this is biology, and so on. A statement like “the social sciences are not real” requires turning off a lot of brain cells. First, you have to have a very specific and overly parsimonious concept of what ‘science’ is. For instance, the ‘pure’ scientific method does not allow any of the historical sciences to exist. So forget about evolutionary biology, palaentology, etc. not to mention archaeology and history. Second, you have to have a pretty naive view of what the social sciences are. There certainly are areas of what are called the social sciences that are not really very science-like, but others that are. Also, there are “fields” that are often referred to that do not really exist as named … like ‘economics.’ Economics is a very large area of study. Analytics, in the policy area of economics, is a form of math applied to modeling somewhat complex system. No hypotheses are tested,on a day to day basis, but the development of the tools (as opposed to their application) follows the scientific method in form. It is like the EMACS of engineering … a self documenting recursive body of methods used to model behavior and address questions related to planning and allocation. History can be done like a science or like literature or like something else.Finally, since you are talking about history: You don’t have to go back to the greeks to find the terms “art” and “science” used as follows: Science is knowledge, art is the application of knowledge. So an economist, a social anthropologist, and a physicist do science. A business person or bureaucrat, a politician, and an engineer are doing art.

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    Whew. Lots to think about there, Greg. Thanks.Let’s see. To answer the one actual question, I generally think of mathematics, inclusive of statistics and probability, as a tool, not as a science. However, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to have a mathematician present a case that would change my mind.As for archaeology, how scientifically was it pursued at that point? The little I know of the history is of treasure hunting, essentially, and I’d say most of these sciences were pursued for quite a while in unscientific ways before they became more formalized and disciplined.I hate “vertical integration,” mostly for the implication of hierarchy. Usually when I talk (rant) about this, I find scale a much more useful concept. We started by understanding things on a terrestrial scale, but as we change scales, we generally need to develop new theories. These don’t invalidate the old theories. It’s just a question of whether those theories operate on the same scale one is investigating.No argument on economics. Pretty much any of the sciences I listed can be infinitely broken down.History is interesting. It’s difficult to talk about in that we use the word indiscriminately. Thinking about it more, I might be tempted to classify the sciency parts of history with mathematics.I have a somewhat different definition of art, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.

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    The first archaeological work that I know of which is well documented is a survey done in a valley in what is now Germany to demonstrate the distribution of a particular type of pottery thought to be ancestral to the king’s lineage, and thus justifying the military takeover of that region. So there was a hypothesis, a methodology, and a test of the hypothesis. And the work was terribly biased, I’m sure, but if that is taken into account then we are in big trouble.I’m not counting much earlier examples. The Persians did “archaeology” and we think also various groups in the Bronze Age and Iron Age in Europe in the sense that they dug up tombs for something other than just finding the gold and stuff, but rather, to prove or disprove some point about this or that king or war lord being buried there. But none of this is well documented and it was probably mostly really for digging up gold and the other stuff was an excuse. The pottery survey is real archaeology, and we know that because, well, who but a real archaeologist would do a pottery survey????

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    Who indeed? Very cool. So how mature would you consider archaeology to be as a science? If it’s not particularly mature, what do you think has held it back? Obviously, it relies on the general level of technology for its tools, but is there more than that?If it is fairly mature, why don’t you think it gets credit for that?

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    Well, actually, archaeology is not a discipline but rather a collection of disciplines. At this very moment there is a lot of archaeology being done that is not scientific, and a lot that is.

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    I like the scale view of things that Stephanie mentioned. My boyfriend studies physics and I like to tell people that him and I are really interested in the same thing – how the world works – but that we approach it from different directions. He looks at the very fundamentals of the universe whereas I study the most complex physical systems discovered so far (living organisms and how they interact).After three years, he’s even stopped taunting biology as a science!Anyway, when it comes to archaeology’s scientific status, Martin at Aardvarchaeology writes about that occasionally, most recently here.

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