Thursday, March 31, 2011

How people perceive social science

Social scientists ( I consider myself in this group) often have trouble explaining the value of our work. For various reasons, people tend to perceive social science as "soft", especially compared to physics, math, chemistry, etc. In many cases this perception is correct. Poorly argued, methodologically weak and purely speculative research exists in the social sciences, though I'm sure there are examples of these in the hard sciences as well.

Sociologist Duncan Watts nicely explains this problem for the social sciences. He has a unique perspective as he switched to sociology after studying physics and math. He has done a lot of interesting work on social networks. This is what he said in an interview with Scientific American:
I started out life in physics and then mathematics, and at some point I switched over to become a sociologist—and in the process of transitioning, I noticed this interesting phenomenon: When people perceived me as a mathematician, and I would describe my research, they would say, "Wow, that's really fascinating. How do you figure these things out? It's complicated and difficult." But when a few years later I was describing the same work in terms of social phenomena and the behavior of people, fads and historical events, success and failure, and so on, people would say, "That sounds kind of obvious. Don't we all know that?" My initial reaction was frustration; I thought, "What the hell? I spent years studying this stuff, and it's not obvious, so why are they reacting this way?" But I eventually switched on my sociologist brain and realized that there's something about social science that's different in how people who are not social scientists perceive it. When someone tries to explain to us how electrons behave, we think it's amazing and completely unintuitive, but when we explain how people behave, it always seems trivial. The whole book is a dialectic between these two related questions—what is it that makes the world complicated, and then, if it's really that complicated, why do we keep behaving as if it's not that complicated?

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