I've been mulling over the potential, and limits, of social science again lately. One reason is that last month philosopher James Weatherall of the University of ... (“@sciammind: Is "social science" an oxymoron?
So we are left with a paradox: Although social science is in many respects quite weak, it can also be extraordinarily potent in terms of its impact, for ill or good, on our lives. Think of all the harm done in the name of Marx—and of social Darwinist and free-market theorists, from Herbert Spencer to Milton Friedman.
But social scientists can improve the world, too. Those I admire most combine rigorous empiricism with a resistance to absolute answers. These are researchers like anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who examines the behavior of primates and early humans for insights into modern gender roles; economist Jeffrey Sachs, who seeks ways to reduce third-world poverty; or political scientist Gene Sharp, an authority on nonviolent social activism.
Social scientists are especially dangerous when they insist—and convince others—that they have discovered absolute truths about humanity, truths that tell us what we are and even what we should be. Hence social scientists—more than any other scientists—should be humble, or at least modest, in making claims.
Here’s a more specific suggestion: Social scientists should consider identifying not with the harder sciences or the humanities but with engineering.