Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences as soft, which too readily translates as meaning woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians, some of whom are used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and with an eye on the polls.
…So, what has political science ever done for us? We don’t, after all, know why crime rates rise and fall. We cannot solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, and we cannot agree on the state’s role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The ‘larger’ the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of ‘hard science’.”.
In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane’s statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules.
Really pleased to see comments like this from academics in the natural sciences, recognising the integrity of social sciences.
As an aside: I have heard colleagues in other disciplines make the (antiquated) claim that the ‘hard’ sciences are more difficult. I have never understood that line of reasoning.
It has always been queries about human systems and behaviours that exposed me to the most unsolvable mysteries, that foiled my methodological pursuits for rigor and replication, and that frustrated me by needing to be couched in so many competing ethical and political considerations.
Maybe I’m settling on what I consider intellectually taxing, but it takes a certain kind of genius to solve this kind of shit. And it’s foolish in-fighting when fellow researchers claim otherwise.
Back to the point though. The ‘softness’ of the social sciences is exactly what makes them so hard. Duh. And that is exactly why social science-related research need resources–be it federal funding, time, or even our attention.
Now if only we could give the humanities some love. Then I’d be as happy as a clam.