As an alarming thread of anti-intellectualism runs through the United States, while government bodies slash funding for increasingly politicized scientific research, scientists are desperately clinging to what makes them scientists. Namely, the scientific method, quantitative data, and the ever-important deductive reasoning.
Scientists feel like they need to defend themselves against political pundits, and who can blame them? Still, many tend to rely upon the scientific hallmarks born of the Age of Enlightenment. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has described it, everything must be falsifiable, meaning it must be observable, verifiable, and reproducible. “Ables” and “ibles” aside, science knows it has a PR problem when pseudoscience such as anti-vaxx views and homeopathy corner the American wellness market.
There is a segment of scientists who are lost in the mix: those who do their science with qualitative data rather than quantitative, who rely upon inductive reasoning rather than deductive, who ask us to accept irreproducible phenomena as evidence.
They are the social scientists, and as their name suggests, they do science, but a qualified science. That pesky “social” is stuck in front of their name, forever dividing them from the “real” scientists who are supposedly entitled to make stronger claims about species that are no longer living on the planet.
As an anthropologist, I’ve heard for years that what I do is not actual science, and that my research must take extra steps to be “legitimate.” Here’s why that attitude is not only bigoted, but dangerous.
My journey as a social scientist
From the beginning of my journey as an anthropologist, I felt a lot of pressure to prove that what I was studying was legitimate. I understand the reason: The social sciences have a nastily racist history, and many people are convinced that anthropologists are still racist (ironically stated while clutching their sociology textbook).
On the flip side, conservative Christians decry anthropologists as horrible cultural relativists who assert that there isn’t a “normal” way to be human. According to these people, it’s shameful for relativists to declare that it’s okay to not be Christian, white, and monogamous (gasp!). Some people don’t like hearing that. I’ll never forget my born-again aunt’s rant about how anthropologists were ruining modern society.
She never bothered to ask what I was studying in school.
Some of my professors urged me to apply a sometimes artificially quantitative approach to my study. The problem I had with that was that it reduced people to numbers. Did it really matter what percentage of my respondents agreed 100 percent with a statement on a piece of paper? What about how they talked, the way they walked, and all the other messy data that made people fascinating?
My anthropology mentors believed that knowledge arose from thorough inquiry into human behavior. “We’re here to learn why humans do the things they do,” said my undergraduate advisor, excitedly tapping the whiteboard where he’d scrawled that phrase. Needless to say, that question doesn’t have neatly quantifiable answers.
We wondered, what if we could bring our research into dialogue with other people’s academic work, having a conversation rather than a pissing contest?
In the end, with the guidance of my mentors, that’s what I did. My work on the media-driven social construction of bullying and abuse was born of multiple conversations among myself, my interviewees, and other researchers. The quantitative piece gave it an obsensibly “scientific” approach, but the thrust of the research was compelling even without the survey data.
People’s stories are data. Period.
Our approach to our questions
Some people argue that because inductive reasoning can draw incorrect conclusions, it has no place in science. They believe in science’s exclusive position as a source of objective truth, and they insist that scientists eschew qualitative data, inductive reasoning, and anything else that doesn’t revolve around numbers and “hard” data. But asserting that these things are the sole ingredients of “real” science ignores the context, which can change everything. Even the so-called hard sciences experience this.
Take one of the landmark evolutionary studies as an example: the peppered moth. This tawny moth began appearing in a dark phenotype as soot took over the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution. The biologists who realized why the moths were evolving so quickly used inductive, not deductive, reasoning to reach their conclusion. There is a place in science for inductive reasoning.
And qualitative data is nothing to sneeze at. When we talk to people about race, gender, religion, tradition, or any other cultural aspect of their lives, we’re rarely going to get numerical data that can be pumped into a computer analysis. And that’s okay. We should want to hear stories from as many voices as possible, and we can indeed draw valid conclusions from them. The scientific method is robust and flexible enough that it can accommodate qualitative data. The key is to gather your observations via a reliable, consistent methodology and use them to test a hypothesis based on prior observations. And remember, scientific experiments that use only quantitative data can absolutely be biased and invalid. The two are not mutually exclusive.
What’s next for science?
As we approach the horizon of what can and cannot be tested, falsifiability does seem to be falling out of vogue, if only as the benchmark for so-called “real” science. Science is increasingly able to validly tackle the Big Questions that are challenging if not impossible to test. There, inductive reasoning has a place.
But what about the social sciences? Can we develop a grand theory of the human mind, akin to string theory for anthropology? Or are we limiting to asserting that we’re all stardust, and that’s all that matters?
As anthropology has evolved, it’s drawn in elements of other disciplines, such as physiology, neurology, psychology, and paleontology. Some critics claim that the science has been watered down. As a cultural anthropologist, I’ve encountered my share of gatekeepers who believe that anthropology must focus on human’s evolutionary history and physical form.
There are even gatekeepers outside academia, rolling their eyes at every anthropologist who dares to suggest that normality is an illusion and things like race and gender are constructs. We’re called social justice warriors, libtards, and loonies… just because we dare to not only question our assumptions, but attempt to study them.
As Franz Boas discovered when he upset people’s assumption that race can be measured in the body, anthropologists have a tendency to rock the boat. Perhaps the demand for us to be more quantifiable is a way for people to distance themselves from the uncomfortable questions we pose. If we reduce our data to boxes ticked off on a survey, we’re avoiding the painful revelations that come when we dig into people’s stories. When we elevate their voices.
When we shake people’s faith in tradition.
Make no mistake: Science has always done that, no matter if it’s “hard” or “soft.” We are in the business of growing our understanding of a complex, strange world. And that’s bound to ruffle some feathers.