Are human sciences really sciences?
A fallacious question?
So, having investigated the many difficulties of the human sciences, can we argue that any firm, objective conclusions are possible in this subject? Certainly, it would be hard to say that the answers offered in any of the areas under the human science umbrella are as ‘hard’ as in, say, maths and the natural sciences. But perhaps we’re in danger of entering a fallacious argument: does it matter that the results arrived at by human scientists are not as objective as those discovered by their natural counterparts? Certainly, the result of human scientists has been to unravel many of the mysteries of how we interact with each other, and we now know more about ourselves than we ever have done before.
It’s worth thinking about the nature of truth before making a judgement on the reliability of human science data in relation to how objective it is, and for this, we can turn to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In his essay ‘The Relativity of Wrong’, he wrote:
…living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
If we judge human science along these lines – offering incomplete theories which are then built on by the next generation of researchers, we see that it is the process that is important, rather than the results that they find out. Indeed, this follows in the great tradition of Socrates, who said that it was the asking of questions that revealed truth, rather than the answering of them.
This also fits in with what Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, said about the human sciences, when he described them as being at a ‘pre-paradigmatic stage’, or in other words, not yet offering results that are accepted by everyone as ‘true’. Instead, we tend to see the society through the lenses of various schools – be it Marxism, Structuralism, Feminism, or whatever else seems to offer us an logically integrated picture of the world. But this does not mean that they are in any way lesser than the natural sciences, only that they are newer.
End note: Murphy’s Law
Perhaps one conclusion that you can rely in the human sciences is Murphy’s Law. This was based on research conducted at an air force base in the USA during the 1940. They were investigating the effects of g-force on human beings, and experimented extensively with human subjects. When asked at a press conference why they had had so few accidents during extremely dangerous tests, John Paul Stapp, in charge of the research, answered that the experimenters planned based on the assumption that ‘if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.’ This was termed Murphy’s Law, after another of the men working on the project, Edward Murphy.
Murphy’s Law can be applied to so many different aspects of life, and is frequently drawn with desperation by those queuing in traffic, getting in the wrong aisle in the supermarket, forgetting important documents, or watching as their slice of buttered bread falls to the floor – butter side down, of course.