The philosophy of science deserves more regular and thoughtful attention than it gets. Thinking about how and why research should be done is something that transcends any particular research question or topic and in a way is what best brings researchers together. But few things are as tiresome, stale, and unproductive as the accusation that “social scientists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex” and that “they often feel that their disciplines should be on par with the ‘real’ sciences” and that they are attempting to “imitate the hard sciences.”
These accusations almost destroy what would otherwise be an interesting and thoughtful op-ed in the NYT and interview in Inside Higher Ed. The authors are two political scientists, and they seem to have some worthwhile ideas. Sadly they bury those ideas below a parade of empty claims about the “envy” of the social scientists they disagree with. As an example of their more substantive content, they write: “Theoretical models can be of great value even if they are never supported by empirical testing.” Thinking about how the world works and reasoning through possible processes and mechanisms even when you can’t empirically test anything yet can certainly have value. Or as another example, “Likewise, the analysis of empirical data can be valuable even in the absence of a grand theoretical model.” This also appears to be a reasonable point to make.
Given their worthwhile ideas, it seems a shame to me that they waste so much time making accusations that they have no way of substantiating and which are little more than silly insults. There have probably always been debates about the role of theory and empirical evidence in the science of human society and behavior. But somehow the idea that people who want more empirically-tested theory are just jealous of non-human sciences has achieved the status of something like Godwin’s Law: As a philosophical discussion about social science grows longer, the probability of an accusation that social scientists have an inferiority complex and are envious of physics approaches 1.
All of this is problematic because it tries to reduce a substantive disagreement to simply an indicator of a scientist’s self-confidence. I think it doesn’t get rejected as such an empty part of the debate because it’s just become so common. (Though admittedly, many social scientists do like examples from the non-social sciences). Yet imagine if some of the social scientists who are presumed to believe what they believe merely because they aren’t confident enough, started to claim that social scientists who don’t believe as they do are just envious of novelists and poets. Or what if those who are skeptical of the claim that there’s just “something special” about humans claimed that social scientists who disagree with them are just jealous of theologians.
What the authors call the “hypothetico-deductive model” can be defended without reference to physics. The notion of that theory should inform research can be supported by scientists that aren’t insecure about the “science” in social science. These are arguments and discussions worth having. Sadly, that debate and the worthy goals the authors suggest is their purpose in writing their book aren’t likely to be furthered by initiating the debate with a tirade of accusations about the personal motivations and confidence of the scientists they’re criticizing.