I’ve had several professional labels over the years: “lawyer”, “budget analyst”, “policy advisor”, and “economist”. Now I’ve got a new one — “social scientist” — and I don’t like it. It’s more than a label — it’s used also as a claim, in ways I am not comfortable with.
To label an object is to attach a piece of fabric, paper, metal or other material that gives information about the object. These are Mary’s shoes. This pump dispenses 87 octane unleaded. This is the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln. This hook is where the pruning shears belong; that hook is where the shovel belongs.
Labels tell observers things that are not obvious, although they are true. The label on “Room 15” is there to help visitors. No one bothers to label the lamps, though we might label the switches if we can’t remember which lights they control.
You can hedge your bets in a label: Some people believe this was the birthplace of Famous Person. A hedge may be implicit, as with the quotes around advertising copy: “America’s Finest Beer”. But a statement that is not generally known to be true is not really serving as a label. It is instead a claim.
A claim is about persuasion. It starts with something that is in dispute or not widely known, and proceeds from there. The claimant may know — or believe — the claim is true, but they realize that the audience is not with them. So they make an effort. They state their case.
The point of a claim is to overcome people’s resistance to it. Labels don’t have that problem. We accept that the label Room 15 is accurate. Otherwise, labelers would have to add evidence. See, look! Here is the building’s floor plan showing room numbers, initialed by the architect; and here is an affidavit from someone who agrees this is really room 15; and here is a photograph of this being room 15 back in 1976; ….
Claims put us on guard, because we know from experience that many claimers care more about convincing us than they do about truth. The harder they push, the more on guard we become. Even people who want to be honest will tailor their claims to their audience.
“Science” can of course be just a label. What does she do for a living? — she’s a scientist. Or … what are you reading? — a book on the science of cooking. The word “science” gives us useful information in those contexts. She’s not a salesperson, she’s a scientist. It’s not a recipe book, it’s a science-of-cooking book. We have no reason to doubt those labels.
“Science” can also be used to label a group, like “the physical sciences” or “the biological science”. The meaningful words are “physical” and “biological” but “science” is useful filler. I don’t object when “social science” is used a grouping label in the same way.
What bothers me is the use of “social science” to claim seriousness, objectivity, trustworthiness, or validity; calling something social “science” to convince us it is true. That is an appeal to authority, which is the antithesis of the scientific method. A scientific result stands or falls on its merits, regardless of label. The stronger the result, the less its proponents need to resort to persuasion.
In other words, insisting that something is science is prima facie evidence that it is wrong. The claim undermines itself.
On the flip side, if something is true, the fact that it doesn’t fit into a supposedly scientific discipline is not a mark against it. The scientific method is a sieve to separate truth from untruth, but not all propositions fit in its machinery.
I have noticed an even more dangerous use of the word “science” — as a shield against review or verification. In other words, I have heard people argue that they should not have to defend or explain their work, because it is “science”. There is a truth lurking here: review can be used as a weapon to delay or obfuscate work. People cannot be expected to answer every question or defend every point in detail. But they should share data and methods so reviewers can do the checking on their own.
You may happily use the term “social science” without intending to claim anything. But I think that the claim is made so often by others that it has become part of the term, whether any individual intends it or not. Just as we cannot excuse our use of words the culture has deemed derogatory, we are stuck with the culture’s use of “social science”. In short, think twice before using that term.