Post No.: 0250
Putting aside issues like intentional research fraud or unintentional mistakes from scientists and reporters here, it often seems like conclusions in the social sciences (e.g. psychology, economics, sociology, political science, linguistics) are more controversial and prone to change than those in the natural sciences (e.g. nuclear physics, biochemistry, climatology, astrophysics, quantum field theory). There seems to be many ‘exceptions to the rules’ in the social sciences.
But maybe it could be understood like this – for instance, there’s Newton’s law of universal gravitation, yet in the real world this doesn’t mean objects when released in the air will always fall to the ground, perhaps because they’re tied to helium balloons or to springs attached to the ceiling. These create what ‘appear’ like exceptions to the rule of universal gravitation. But in testing the law of gravity, we can easily identify and account for/remove these helium balloons or springs to show that the law of gravity works as predicted. So regarding the social sciences, universal laws may also truly exist yet we keep on spotting what appears to be exceptions to them – but here we cannot easily determine for sure why these exceptions exist because we cannot (practically or ethically) tease apart or isolate all of the variables involved in real life outside (or sometimes even inside) of carefully controlled lab environments (analogous to identifying and accounting for/removing the helium balloons or springs from objects).
What if, for example, one comment, word of advice, piece of (fake) news or a person you met when young changed your life path from then on forever? You don’t know for sure whether it did or didn’t because you cannot run another version of your life (which was and is already unique because no one had, has or will ever have the exact same combination of genes and life experiences as you) where you didn’t hear those exact words, see those images or meet that person at that exact time of your life to compare. What if one gene made the difference? Yet social scientists are wondering why you ended up with the life you have now rather than some other life. Social life, or the macro world of living things, involves a lot of complexly interacting variables and is often chaotic (as in a small initial difference early on could possibly result in a drastically different outcome down the line – this is also known as the ‘butterfly effect’).
Unlike physics or chemistry, where ‘the standard boiling point of pure water at 1 bar is 99.61°C’ and you can guarantee that – there are far more variables that affect human behaviour hence why we can seldom make near 100% certain predictions about human behaviours and outcomes. It doesn’t mean there aren’t usually patterns to be found though.
Virtually all social science issues have multiple contributory causes for every effect (e.g. how people become overweight or stay slim, how some people who eat healthy diets and exercise regularly still get cancer, or vice-versa). Some factors will indeed be more certain and influential than others in either a positive or negative way – there are many patterns and generalisations that teach us something (and that’s how we can conclude that eating healthily and exercising regularly are still worth doing, for example) – but it can sometimes get very complicated trying to tease out which things matter and by exactly how much amongst the noise of the other tangled variables (such as how much particular (combinations of) genes matter compared to lifestyle choices, and indeed if our lifestyle choices are more shaped by the culture or environment we live in or our genes themselves?)
So although it’s all about stuff happening (physical matter behaving) in the exact same universe – research and conclusions in the social sciences don’t tend to be as neat and certain as those in the natural sciences. It’s harder to isolate and control social life than the conditions inside a test tube or particle collider. Nevertheless, honest scientists try their best and the more research is conducted, the more certain we can be of the conclusions and the more we can reduce any disagreements. (Or maybe absolute certainty is like perfection – we might not ever reach it but every step forwards should be a step closer towards it.)
It also highlights why we must assess scientific studies on a case-by-case basis, keep up to date with the latest findings, hold conclusions (from the social sciences especially) as more provisional than set in concrete, to never be ashamed to change one’s mind if new evidence convinces one to, and to never try to shame others for changing their minds for the same reason. (Some things written in this blog might become outdated in the future, and if so then they may either get spotted and updated or that’s what the comments are partly for. That’s no problem. That’s how learning unavoidably works. Woof!)
In the social sciences in particular, ethical experimentation can be a tricky area because in order to ‘blind’ participants, they cannot always know exactly what’s going to happen to them. Nonetheless, they must consent to the participation, fully understand the potential consequences, be able to leave at any time they want and have their data removed if requested, have their privacy respected, be treated fairly and without exploitation, and not be harmed (a sometimes dilemmatic issue because the cost-to-benefit balance needs to consider both the individual human ‘guinea pigs’ and the benefits of a piece of research for humankind as a whole. Non-human animal testing for the benefit of humans is of course another dilemmatic area, not least because the results of an intervention for one mammal won’t necessarily accord with another mammal like humans; yet if they do then most humans – when it really comes down to it – would rather put a human life before another animal’s life e.g. sacrificing some fluffy rats to try to cure one’s child from a terrible disease).
This rules out a lot of randomised-controlled trials that would more definitively give us the answers we’re looking for in the social sciences. Therefore social scientists have to try to gather their data in other, less perfect or ideal, ways. For example, psychological torture cannot be successfully simulated in a lab test because participants can always say when they want the experiment to stop, which isn’t ecologically valid to (i.e. representative of) real-life torture at all, hence one can only look at correlations in observational studies and historical data analyses – and we know that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Meanwhile, repeatedly smashing protons together at nearly the speed of light causes no ethical issues whatsoever!
So in the social sciences, it’s often about research being ethical; as well as having the resources/funding to answer the myriad of questions we have about human life. It’s currently more likely to be commercial firms, such as social media giants or their third-parties for the primary purpose of profit, rather than conventional scientists for the primary purpose of basic research, who have the resources, motivation and will be and are surreptitiously (and therefore unethically?) conducting experiments on people (e.g. serving slightly different targeted adverts to different people, without them knowing they are being experimented on, to see which ones are more effective at influencing people’s behaviours); as well as these corporations being the ones collecting masses of people’s personal data on it all too (although every user should arguably now know that this is what happens when they use their paid or ‘free’ services – then again, even if you’re not a user, they often collect and process what data they can get on you anyway in order to work out how to make you become a user!)
One day there might be formulas that accurately model human behaviour and evolution and we’ll be able to create virtual worlds with virtual humans that’ll behave truly indistinguishably from real humans in every single detail? In principle this is possible because nothing suggests it’ll violate any laws of physics. But those formulas will highly likely be enormously complex with possibly many thousands or more variables each interacting with each other in highly complex ways to create particular behaviours, and so this might be computationally impractical, at least currently. All living things are physical machines after all, evolved from the Big Bang and operating therefore according to the laws of physics like every other collection of physical matter in this universe – every thought and memory, action and life itself, is a series of physical processes. Some of these virtual beings will behave strangely or extraordinarily, but some real-life humans behave strangely too, as if they’re ‘buggy’ or ‘glitching’ – well who knows if you are in a virtual simulation already or are a super-sophisticated virtual being in one yourself(?!) Just a thought experiment.
It probably doesn’t get any more complex than life interacting with other life. But for this complexity, finding firm conclusions in the social sciences is not as easy as in the natural sciences – one electron is the same as another electron, whilst one human (a collection of electrons and other stuff in a particular, yet dynamic, arrangement) can be vastly different to another human, thus making data comparisons between subjects and extrapolated conclusions to a wider population relatively difficult and uncertain. Electrons don’t have good and bad days either – you can replicate studies with them and they’ll do exactly the same things as before. Predicting and calculating the interplay of pressure and temperature gradients is relatively easier than predicting and calculating the interplay of billions of humans whom individually may or may not do something they did just yesterday. Humans do operate according to the laws of physics too, but each human is a complex and potentially chaotic system in and of him/herself, hence the social sciences are about trying to predict a complex and chaotic system of complex and chaotic systems, which makes predictions in these fields far more messy and less reliable than in the natural sciences. Unpredictability is not the same thing as randomness though.
It must be importantly noted though that there are huge areas of debate and disagreement in the natural sciences too, and generally accepted conclusions in the natural sciences sometimes update too. Newton’s law of universal gravitation mentioned earlier, for instance, is only accurate for objects where the gravitational force is not too strong (so not too close to massive objects like black holes) and we don’t know with good certainty whether it’s accurate when the gravitational force is extremely weak (such as extremely far away interactions or interactions at the microscopic level). It’s only useful for objects that aren’t travelling too close to the speed of light too. It’s thus in fact hardly a ‘universal’ law then! And it demonstrates how new laws or theories can supersede old ones even in the field of physics – in this case by the general theory of relativity, which states that gravity isn’t even technically a force. Yet even general relativity fails or becomes nonsensical at the quantum level! So even in the natural sciences, conclusions can have exceptions, we hardly know everything yet, and laws and theories can get superseded or refined as we learn more.
Now all this doesn’t mean that the entire endeavour of science is random or pointless – we just need to continue exploring and learning more because we get closer and closer to the truth the more we do. From relatively simple rules or mechanisms, incredibly complex outcomes can arise, and these relatively simple rules or mechanisms can be counter-intuitively difficult to reverse engineer.
Woof! As usual, you are welcome to share what you think about this topic by replying to the tweet linked in the Twitter comment button below.