Science education

Social Sciences are not Falsifiable

“Academic math-intensive science is not sexist” was the message that Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, two Cornell University psychologists, meant to get across in the 2 November 2014 op-ed in The New York Times.  Their work, which reports the results of several hundred analyses of data on hiring, salary, promotion, productivity and job satisfaction for eight broad fields of science at American universities and colleges, reveals that the experiences of young and mid-career women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts.

“I think it’s an important message,” says psychologist Diane Halpern of the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA. Women in math-intensive fields “are not being discriminated against in the academic job market. I think that’s really something to celebrate.”

Other social scientists disagree:

  • “The problem with observational data is that you can’t determine cause and effect very easily,” says psychologist Virginia Valian of the CUNY’s Hunter College. “You don’t know what the underlying mechanism is.”
  • “Measures of equal performance or equal opportunity in hiring do not mean there is no bias,” says University of Texas, Austin, sociologist Jennifer Glass. “They mean that women have overcome any bias that may exist.”
  • The authors “seem to underrate the large body of experimental evidence pointing to the importance of bias and stereotyping and the experiences of discrimination that are driving women out of these fields,” says psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.

My own personal experience in hiring new faculty for our physics department during my tenure (1985-2014) tends to agree with the conclusion of the authors of the op-ed. Our provosts went out of their way – by chipping in huge amounts of money for start-up funds and salaries, up to 1/3 of the latter in some cases – to help us hire underrepresented candidates.

There is another, equally important, lesson to be learned from the op-ed and reactions to it. The contradictory statements above are a manifestation of the “it-is-too-complicated” syndrome, which is a symptom of the social sciences. “It-is-too-complicated” prohibits any firm conclusion of any detailed study in social sciences because, say social scientists, the object of study is too complex to allow “simple” conclusions. Neither the claimer nor the refuter can convince the other of the validity of their reasoning, and contradictory statements live on side by side. “It-is-too-complicated” does not exist in physics, chemistry, and (molecular) biology. Not in the sense that statements (theories) come “easy” in those fields, but in the sense that conclusions can be easily made about statements because quantitative experimentation and observation can either verify or nullify them. In other words, physical, chemical, and (molecular) biological statements are falsifiable, and this falsifiability is one of the most important characteristics of science. The disagreements sampled above is indicative of the non-falsifiability of social scientific statements.

With so many unresolved disagreements in the field of psychology, is it feasible to call it “science,” as psychologists want to?

When the public is so scientifically illiterate as to think that quantum healing, conscious universe, Tao of physics, quantum psychics (that’s “psychics” not physics!), Yoga of time travel, etc., are all legitimate sciences, wouldn’t it add to the public’s confusion and illiteracy if psychology, with all its contradictory ideas, is identified as science?

Wouldn’t the public be served better if we accept and publicize the fact that, despite its enormous usefulness, psychology is not a science?  … just as sociology, medicine, and technology are not sciences, despite their indispensable utility?

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