Basic Scientific Method begins with observation. Using either their own
senses or instruments which measure beyond their sensory range, natural
scientists ‘see’ the natural world from which they create knowledge.
Can social scientists observe in the same way?
what can’t be seen
what social scientists concern themselves cannot be ‘seen’, in the
sense of being observable through the senses, with or without instruments
to aid the seeing You cannot ‘see’ ‘motivation’ or
‘leadership’ or ‘concentration’.
To understand these, and the many similar characteristics of human
behaviour, social scientists have to rely on their own ‘empathy and
introspection’, rather like
the proverbial ‘sixth sense’. Why didn’t you attend class
yesterday’! Were you lazy? ill? Bored? Otherwise engaged? Rebellious?
Doing your own thing? Social scientists cannot be sure of your reason for
being absent (they can ask you of
course, but what would the answer be worth?) so
they must consult their own repertoire of motives to understand
your behaviour. But their ‘repertoire of motives’ may be misleading
They may pick the wrong one or not even have the correct one in their
repertoire. Or the behaviour may be a blend of motives which are
impossible to separate from each other. Social scientists can make some
well informed attempts to define the reason you were not in class
yesterday and their empathetic analysis will probably give them some
accurate insights into your behaviour. But probably
is not definitely. You
can’t see what can’t be seen.
seen by the seen
If you knew your behaviour was
being watched by social scientists researching into the effectiveness of
homework, would you act entirely normally? You might sense what it is they
hoped to know (even if you were wrong) and give them that information. Or,
depending on a variety of factors, including possibly your character or
mood, or how sympathetic you find the researchers, you might deliberately
ensure they don’t get the information you sense they are looking for.
You might also deliberately deceive the researchers to protect a secret or
two you have. Or you might distort information to present yourself in a
more flattering way. Or again, you may believe, rightly or wrongly. the
researchers are going to provide the school administration with
information which will lead to your homework load being increased, so you
make sure your behaviour indicates that you already work six hours every
evening and couldn’t possible manage any more.
Social scientists are all familiar with the The
Cassandra Paradox. Cassandra was a Trojan princess. The god Apollo fell in
love with her and was so pleased she returned his love that he gave her
the gift of accurately predicting the future. However, she cheated on him
so he turned his gift into a curse. She could still accurately predict the
future but no one would believe her. (There’s an interesting knowledge
problem there: if she knew what was going to happen in the future did she
know, when she cheated on Apollo, that the gift would become a curse? And
if she did...?). The Cassandra Paradox works like this: social scientists
predict, based on the knowledge of your behaviour, that you will be absent
from school next week. You hear of this prediction and it so annoys you
that you make sure it doesn’t come true. An astronomer’s prediction of
the appearance of Hailey’s Cornet doesn’t influence the Comet. A
social scientist’s prediction of human behaviour might influence human
behaviour. Being seen by the seen distorts what is seen.
Seeing what you want to see
Both the natural sciences and the social sciences
are human constructs: methods of creating knowledge and the knowledge
itself created by humans. These humans have values, values which classify
actions and achievements, goals and aspirations, as good or bad, just or
unjust, worthy or worthless. Any personal values or biases based on these
values that scientists, natural or social, bring to their research should
be made explicit and compensated for. Physicists looking for an all-embracing
Theory of Everything must be extremely careful that their desire to find
such a theory doesn’t interfere with their observations and deductions.
Social scientists face the same kind of problems as physicists. But their
researches are even more vulnerable to personal values because they, the
social scientists are themselves human and part of their own subject
matter. Social scientists researching the effectiveness of homework have
themselves experienced homework. Their own experience may lead them to
believe that homework is fundamental to success later in life or that it
is simply a device used to keep young people busy and to control them or
train them to work hard or one of a thousand other things. They may make
their values explicit and compensate for them, may overcompensate perhaps,
but it is impossible for them to ignore them completely. Total, value-free
objectivity is not possible in either natural or social science. But in
social science it is more difficult to achieve than in natural science.
Seeing what you want to see distorts.
- Observing in the social sciences is not the same as observing in the
Social science is concerned with concepts that may not be observed
through the physical senses.
What is observed can be distorted, either deliberately or
otherwise, by the what or who is being observed.
Objective value free observation is even more difficult than it is
in the natural sciences.
from the book Ways of knowing: an
introduction to Theory of Knowledge - Michael Woolman)