The Trouble with Science, Social and Otherwise, Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of The Trouble with Science, we stated that since science is the work of finite, sinful men and women, we, Christians, should be careful not to expect too much from it.  In Part 2, we explore six things to remember as we keep science in perspective.

1.  What is.  The scientific method is capable of describing what is, but science cannot make any statement as to what should be.  The social sciences, for instance, often do a pretty good job of describing what people are like and how they do behave, but they also tend to desire to declare how people should behave.  That is not science, so the social sciences have attempted to overcome this limitation of science via the use of statistics.  By determining through statistics what most people do, social scientists then assert what is “normal.”  But to say what is statistically normal is not to say what is good or what should be.  Sin is statistically normal.  Social scientists can attempt to “normalize,” through studies and statistics, those behaviors that they personally deem to be desirable, but this is outside the scope of genuine science.

2.  Based on funding.  Many people have a noble view of scientists searching for truth wherever the evidence leads.  This is the sort of endeavor that draws many students to science.  However, few scientists have the resources for such a search.  They must move on from the evidence they find in one study to whatever it is their employer wants them to study next.  The truth is that money, much of it provided by large foundations and by government in the form of financial grants, guides the vast bulk of research.  Good social science research can be very expensive, and without grants, little would ever take place.  A social scientist seldom moves from truth to truth.  Rather, he must move from grant to grant.

3.  Temporary.  Scientific knowledge is never final.  Even our understanding of such fundamental “laws” as gravity or the laws of physics are subject to revision pending further study.  That is the very nature of science.  This is especially true in the social sciences.  What we claim to know about how people think, behave, learn, and develop is temporary knowledge.  That is why we call much of what we derive from the social sciences, “theory.”  We have developmental theory, learning theory, family systems theory, etc.  Very little, if anything, in the social sciences is ever considered a law.  Such temporary knowledge, when wrong, can be dangerous when used to change people.

4.  Interpreted.  False interpretation happens even to solid scientific studies.  Sometimes false interpretation is intentional; sometimes the researcher is blind to what is there; sometimes it comes as a mistake.  False interpretations happen too often, such as in a study “that found no difference between children who are reared by heterosexual parents and those raised by homosexual couples.”[1]  Further review by other university researchers found that claim to be false.  It does not matter why the false claim was made.  The claim was harmful, and Christians should be leery of repeating any study finding until the study has been repeated and verified independently.  This includes claims that support our cherished beliefs.

5.  Limited.  Every time a social science researcher studies something, she chooses not to study many other related things.  Such is the nature of science.  Every study is only a sliver of a total reality.  When Wallerstein studied children and divorce, she made a decision not to follow them into adulthood.  Later, she learned that that decision was costly to her data and to her interpretation.  Likely, it was costly to children who were treated in certain ways by society, government, and parents based upon Wallerstein’s “partial” findings.

6.  Generalized.  Social sciences can only generalize at best.  Too many variables confront the study of people created in the image of God to do more than to generalize statistically.  We must remember that whatever we believe to be true according to studies almost never explicitly applies to any one individual person specifically.  Generalizations can be helpful to our planning, for example, but generalizations often are harmful to the individual who is outside the “norm.”

The social sciences can help us see how people do live and behave and learn, so long as we remember that they cannot speak to how people should behave, that social research is based on funding, produces temporary knowledge, depends upon correct interpretation, cannot study anything completely, and can only generalize toward groups of people.

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