The Dangers of Social Science Thinking

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 at 12:00 pm

The social sciences clarify human behavior tremendously, but they’re also dangerous: because they carry the imprimatur of “science,” we’re in danger of taking their findings as the final word on human nature. To confuse descriptions of how the world is with prescriptions for how it ought to be—and simplifying assumptions with reality—is quite silly, but also quite common and quite harmful.

Victims of this error misapply clumsy and callous modes of thinking to inappropriate contexts. For example, a team of researchers found that studying economics at the graduate level inhibits “cooperation” (which we might call “decency”) in everyday life. In international relations, Alexander Wendt makes the point that the gloomy assumptions of Realist theory are self-fulfilling. More mundanely: have you ever heard someone justify his actions by his Myers-Briggs scores—rather than working to improve the habitual tendencies the test identified?

Every discipline shapes the thought of its students. (If we studied poetry, we might find ourselves becoming wispy and self-indulgent.) But social science is especially dangerous because it approaches human behavior through the essentially inhuman lens of science. Science can define and quantify human experiences, but it is not their native language. We humans ourselves, and our subjective experiences, still represent the final authority on living an honest, engaged, meaningful life. No more passing the buck.


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