The scientific method, the social sciences, and proof

The New York Times has an opinion piece decrying the efforts of social scientists to employ the scientific method:

Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the theoretical model holds; if the hypothesis is not confirmed, the theoretical model does not hold. If your discipline does not operate by this method — known as hypothetico-deductivism — then in the minds of many, it’s not scientific.

Such reasoning dominates the social sciences today. . . But we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.

There’s no question that the social sciences are handicapped by the difficulty in doing controlled experiments. But does that mean they shouldn’t even try? They offer no real argument in support of their position.

In fact, the argument that they try to make exposes a complete misunderstanding of the scientific method. They argue that the scientific method is unnecessary because of various examples in which the sciences made do with mathematical proofs in place of experiments.

Okay, great! But understand that mathematical proof is better than experimental evidence, not worse. Proof offers us certainty, but it’s only available to certain domains. Unlike mathematics, logic, and much of computer science, the physical sciences have to settle for experimental evidence, because they cannot get the certainty that comes from mathematical proof.

I’ll happily allow that social scientists, or any scientists, can set aside experimental testing of their hypotheses in favor of something better. But the authors aren’t arguing for that. Instead they make the unjustifiable leap to the notion that because experimental testing is not always necessary, we can settle for something worse.  That’s nonsense.

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