Gian Piero de Bellis

Essays on post-statism

On the Social Sciences as Social Scam and the Social Scientists as Social Scoundrels

(2006)

 


 

Presentation


The scientific approach
The ensuing reality
The scientific split
The scientific gulf
The scientific clash
The problem stated
References

 


 

"The natural sciences have developed an enormous activity and have accumulated an ever-growing mass of material. Philosophy, however, has remained just as alien to them as they remain to philosophy."
(Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

 

The scientific approach (^)

The human being is, basically, a curious observer and analyser of everything that surrounds and takes place around him. From careful observations and critical reflections emerge (tentative) explanations about the nature and origin of phenomena.
In the ancient past the philosopher, i.e. the lover (filos) of knowledge as wisdom (sofia), was interested in the total reality. Aristotle could very well ponder and write about the material and mental world in which the human being lived and by which he was affected.
In the course of time, the Catholic Church, after reaching a position of supremacy in the Western world, absorbed and integrated into its views and teachings the writings of Aristotle and, for centuries, they were assumed to be the final word when it came to describing and explaining reality.
This was the situation up to the XV and XVI centuries when Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo undermined the Aristotelian cosmological construction.


Copernicus (1473 - 1543) : De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543)
Kepler (1571 - 1630) : Astronomia Nova (1609)
Galileo (1564 - 1642) : Dialogo sopra i massimi sistemi (1632)


This was made possible also through:

- more precise observations due to the invention of new devices like the telescope;

- more fruitful experimentation conducted according to new rigorous methods.

The Catholic hierarchy believed that freedom of observation and experimentation could result in compromising the doctrine of the Church and especially its power of sanctioning what was true and what was false.
This fear of losing its hold over people's minds was the main reason behind the trial of Galileo and the forced recantation of his theory.

The dominant power of the time (the Catholic Church) had thus decided in favour of traditional fallacious myths instead of leading the way towards the discovery of new scientific truths.
In doing so it condemned itself to a long process of intellectual decadence resulting, in due course, in the decline of its moral authority and material power.

Approximately at the same turn of time (the end of the XVI and the beginning of the XVII century), in a different more liberal society, i.e. one where the power of the Church was not so pervasive and invasive, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) could freely carry on his experiments. Subsequently, signs of the further development of the freedom of investigation emerged: the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was founded (London 1660), Isaac Newton published the "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" (1687) and the ideas and methods of modern science eventually started to be accepted in ever wider circles.

Starting from the XVII century then, scientists liberated themselves from the strictures represented not by their religious convictions or by the belief in God (shared by Galilei, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Leibniz, and many others) but by the control exercised by the Church hierarchy on the free investigation of reality.
In doing so, not only did they displace obsolete imposed views but deepened and widened the knowledge of matter and embarked on a journey in which the development of knowledge became almost a self-sustained self-propelled occurrence.
The scientific method, free from the blocking interferences of any external power and animated by the inner drive of the scientists as knowledge seekers, brought about a constant flow of impressive discoveries.


The ensuing reality (^)

Throughout the XVII and XVIII centuries the knowledge of nature and its practical application, as in the form of technological devices, proceeded apace, especially in England, leading to the emergence of what would be called the Industrial Revolution.
This was made possible by the freedom of initiative and experimentation resulting from the lack of intrusion into earthly activities of the religious power (the Church), by then openly submitted, in some countries of North and Central Europe, to the power of secular rulers. The new rising power (the central state) not only did not oppose scientific and technological development but was interested in it for reasons of military strength and economic superiority.
However, the situation in the so-called social or human sciences was going to be very different. The cosmopolitan outlook of Humanism and Renaissance (XIV-XVI centuries) revived by the Enlightenment (late XVII and XVIII centuries) was bound to be less and less serviceable to the new power interested in territorialism (territorial sovereignty) and nationalism (cultural homogeneity).
For this reason, while the sciences of nature and of matter gained from the progressive decline of the power of the Catholic Church, the same cannot be said for the social and human sciences in relation to the rising power of the Nation State.
The emancipation and development of the physical sciences contrasts, then, with the subjection and underdevelopment of the social sciences through a process that can be characterized by three aspects:

- the scientific split

- the scientific gulf

- the scientific clash.


The scientific split (^)

The deepening and widening of knowledge brought in its wake the formation and consolidation of different areas of research. This was almost a spontaneous result of a process of development of knowledge never seen before, but it was artificially reinforced and taken to senseless extremes by the parallel formation of an institutional apparatus of schools and centres of learning where each one was jealous of his field of study and wanted to affirm its autonomy and dignity as a separate and specific discipline.
The result was that, in some cases, a so-called scientist was involved in an investigation at the end of which he knew more and more about less and less until, somebody added in a sarcastic note, he might know everything about nothing.


"During the last one hundred years [mid XIX - mid XX centuries] the tendency has been for each science to hold the others at a safe distance, browsing on its own selected pastures and learning more and more about less and less. Although this is undoubtedly due in part to the vast accumulation of factual knowledge which this period has seen, it also represents a definite attitude whose effects have been stultifying."
(Ralph Linton, The Scope and Aims of Anthropology, in, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by Ralph Linton, 1950)


In the sciences of life and matter (i.e. biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.) the split into different fields of study has been reversed since the middle of the XX century with intersections and cross-fertilization between various domains of research. During the 1950's and 1960's the proponents of Cybernetics (Norbert Wiener) and General System Theory (Ludwig von Bertalanffy) stimulated the adoption of integrated approaches to the study of problems.
The same cannot be said within the so-called social sciences (sociology, psychology, economics, etc.) and especially in relation to the intercourse between the social sciences and the sciences of matter. In this case the split (separation) has grown to such a point that it seems appropriate to call it a gulf (divarication).


The scientific gulf (^)

In 1956 Charles P. Snow, a physicist and novelist, delivered a lecture at Cambridge University (U.K.) bearing the revelatory title "The Two Cultures." In his speech he highlighted the fact that a huge "gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding" had grown between "literary intellectuals at one pole [and] at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists."
Not only were they unable to communicate with each other but they were also unwilling to do so, behaving almost as if they were not on speaking terms with each other.
Even the fact that they were and still are referred to using different terms is highly revealing of the existing gulf: intellectuals for the literati and those involved with humanities, scientists for those investigating physical, technical and biological phenomena.
At the beginning of the XXI century the gulf is still there and in fact, having existed for such a long span, it has grown to such an extent that it is now part of the accepted scenery of modern life. Its permanence is even more extraordinary given the fact that we are now immersed in a technological world as a result of the innumerable discoveries of the scientists but, at the same time, we keep using (or are constrained to use) methods and tools of social analysis and organization more appropriate to a feudal past.


"Scientific knowledge and technical mastery of nature daily win new and unprecedented victories. But in man's practical and social life the defeat of rational thought seems to be complete and irrevocable. In this domain modern man is supposed to forget everything he has learned in the development of his intellectual life. He is admonished to go back to the first rudimentary stages of human culture."
(Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, 1946)


Albeit most are unwilling to recognize or unable to realize it, the gulf has now become a clash whose nature and consequences need to be not only examined but also taken seriously into consideration.


The scientific clash (^)

What we are witnessing and experiencing now, at the beginning of the new millennium, is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of cultures within civilization; more precisely, a clash between technological progress and material affluence on one side and social stagnation and moral decadence on the other.
This is the result of the impressive progress in scientific and technological culture that has not been matched by a similar advancement in the humanities. On the contrary, the so-called human and social sciences are bogged down in debates that belong to bygone ages (feudalism, mercantilism, absolutism) that would appear absurd to anyone if it were not for the fact that our personal and social reality is still characterized by so many traits which belong to those ages.
The problem arises because a mainly feudal social present and a generally failing social pseudo-science exist side by side with a futuristic technological reality and a dynamic physical science.
The consequence is that we are in the schizophrenic position of being, at the same time, technological supermen and social pygmies.

We are technological supermen or, more precisely, technologically empowered human beings, because we dwell on the shoulders of giants, i.e. all preceding scientists and technologists whose widely available discoveries we use.

We are social pygmies (with reference to the social sciences and social practices) because we are under the spell or the heels of many despotic little storytellers, epigones of past masters (Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Jung, etc.) whose ideas those epigones have, quite often, distorted and dulled into simplistic formulas that we keep repeating slavishly and boringly.

In other words, the technological empowerment of individuals, especially visible nowadays in the mastery of information and communication that characterizes contemporary human beings, is not accompanied by an intellectual enlightenment that should be, at least, stimulated by the successors of those who did it in the past, namely the philosophers and the humanists (presently, the social scientists).
The dissociation and disequilibrium between personal empowerment (high) and personal enlightenment (low), is then likely to result in unhealthy, even lethal combinations as, for instance:

- empowerment and estrangement: individuals becoming extremely apathetic up to the point of letting Big Brother control and guide them (to the gas chambers, to the refugee camps, to the welfare office or to other places of physical and moral death);

- empowerment and enragement: individuals becoming extremely violent up to the point of using the full force of technology to destroy everything and everyone on the way to their (legitimate or lunatic) aspirations.

The situation is very serious because those who should know better (the social scientists) are unwilling or unable to see the problem and to present possible solutions. The likely reason is because, in doing so, the social scientists would expose their own faulty (to say the least) conceptions and practices.


The problem stated (^)

The scientific split-gulf-clash is not the result of differences intrinsic to the fields of investigation qualified as social sciences and physical sciences.
Science, that is organized knowledge about reality, is not a contradictory experience delimited by fences and signposts, where what is true in one field is false in another and vice-versa.
As a matter of fact, the unity of reality, however rich and multifarious a reality might be, makes the unity of science-knowledge one of the basic tenets for anybody involved in exploring the world in a methodical and rigorous way.


"Neither the plain man nor the scientific inquirer is aware, as he engages in his reflective activity, of any transition from one sphere of existence to another. He knows no two fixed worlds - reality on one side and mere subjective ideas on the other; he is aware of no gulf to cross. He assumes uninterrupted, free, and fluid passage from ordinary experience and abstract thinking, from thought to fact, from things to theories and back again. Observation passes into development of hypothesis; deductive methods pass into use in description of the particular; inference passes into action, all with no sense of difficulty save those found in the particular task in question. The fundamental assumption is continuity.
This does not mean that fact is confused with idea, or observed datum with voluntary hypothesis, theory with doing, any more than a traveler confuses land with water when he journeys from one to the other. It simply means that each is placed and used with reference to service rendered the other, and with reference to the future use of the other."
(John Dewey, Essays in Experimental Logic, 1916)


"All the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways."
(Richard P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, 1965)


Moreover, the scientific process has common features whenever and wherever it is undertaken, regardless of what aspect is under investigation.
The common features of the scientific process are:

- it starts from a problem;

- it uses a mix of methods and tools of investigation all geared, in the final theoretical instance, to the production of clear statements and consistent arguments;

- it produces incremental knowledge (based on past knowledge, i.e. on previous consolidated true beliefs) subject, in different ways, to the common requirements of moral honesty and factual justification on the part of the scientist (replicability, verifiability, falsifiability, consistency with other true beliefs);

- it aims at, and quite often it leads to, the solution of problems.


"Science does not begin with facts, with hypotheses, or even with a method, but with a specific problem. Social science is no exception to this rule."
(F. S. C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, 1947)


"There are not such things as pure and applied science - there are only science and the applications of science."
(Louis Pasteur, 1822-1895)


However, the so-called social scientists fail in many respects to conform to the requirements of scientific investigation, advancing all sorts of justifications, the most common of which is the supposed intractability of human problems, which, according to them, sets the sciences of humanity apart from, if not above the physical sciences.
Those who support this position seem not only to ignore the complexity that confronts a biologist in presence of an ecosystem, a meteorologist trying to understand climate changes or a geologist dealing with earthquake occurrences. In so doing, the social scientists seem also to belittle the human being, portraying him as a whimsical and unpredictable individual. At the same time, they put themselves on a pedestal as high calibre intellectuals accomplishing the "sublime" mission of discussing (unfortunately to no avail) the complexity of the human experience (without, it must be added, ever reaching an agreement, let alone a solution to some basic problems).
In fact, the task of the social scientists should be that of searching for problems and testing solutions through voluntarily undertaken social experiments of which they might be not only the promoters but also the protagonists, in the same way as every scientist conducts experiments (or analyses natural occurrences) and assesses results.
Falling short of this, the so-called social scientists should rather be portrayed as the last sorcerers, absorbed, as most of them are, by the incessant repetition of magic formulas (mantras) that have no connection whatsoever with actual reality.
Unfortunately, and here is where the problem lies, these sorcerers still claim and obtain, cunningly or aggressively, the attention of the people because they are in tune with the current power and, for this reason, are the only official (obsessive and ubiquitous) storytellers, in the same way as the Catholic Church was, once, the only existent or admissible voice.
We need then to examine this situation, i.e. the reality of the social sciences and of the social scientists, because, only the unmasking of their world made of myths and superstitions can possibly lead us to the free development of knowledge, everywhere and for all human beings who aspire to it.

 


 

References (^)

[1844] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

[1916] John Dewey, Essays in Experimental Logic, Dover Publications, New York

[1946] Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1974

[1947] F. S. C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, The Macmillan Company, New York

[1950] Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1954

[1950] Ralph Linton, The Scope and Aims of Anthropology, in, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by Ralph Linton, Columbia University Press, New York

[1956] Charles P. Snow, The Two Cultures
http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5110/snow_1959.pdf

[1957] Ludovico Geymonat, Galileo Galilei, Einaudi, Torino

[1965] Richard P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1992

[1968] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1971

[1970] Jean Charon, Cosmology, Theories of the Universe, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London

[1988] René Dubos, Pasteur and Modern Science, Science Tech Publishers, Madison, USA