Social science and natural science

This week we read several articles about social sciences and how they can work with natural sciences to enact successful policy outcomes.  I was very glad to read the editorial in Conservation Biology that called for integrating and mainstreaming social sciences into natural science research and communication.

Such an integration may not be as easy as it might appear.  In reading that editorial and the chapter from Contemporary Sociological Theory, along with the readings from the IPCC our first week, one big cultural divide is apparent.  While natural sciences like to be as certain as possibly in data analysis – even to the point of quantifying the level of uncertainty as was done in the IPCC report – social sciences do not do the same thing.  Instead, they take an approach based on various schools of thought, and using them as lenses to make sense of observations, as the sociology chapter discusses functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, etc.

One reason for this difference in approach may be that social sciences typically study humans, while natural sciences study the natural world.  Natural sciences have traditionally broken that world down into parts in an effort to gain an understanding of how they work, while social sciences, while focusing on different spheres such as micro and macro, do not typically practice such reductionism.  For one thing, that might require experiments on humans that are unethical and would never pass the Institutional Review Board, such as the Stanford prison experiment.  Yet, even natural scientists are starting to move away from reductionism to take a more systems approach, looking at how all the pieces work together, and to their surprise, they are finding emergent properties showing that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think it would be interesting to the two fields to try each other’s approach.  Are there broad camps or approaches that can be identified within natural sciences, much as we see functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism?  Are there ethical ways research on humans could be broken down to quantify the pieces of each part of the experiment?  Vaske aned Donnelly tried to do this in their research on values, attitudes, and behaviors, and perhaps I didn’t understand the statistics, but I really didn’t see how their conclusions told us anything we don’t already know – that values shape attitudes and both shape behavior.

It may be that each area of science has its own subject of study and methodology, but that the two can work together to help shape policy.  Science about human behavior can tell us how to best shape policy and communication to get people to lower carbon emissions, preserve wild spaces, and stop polluting, which science about natural systems can tell us if these efforts are actually working or not, and how efforts in one part of the ecosystem affect other parts.  Both approaches will be vital to preserving ecosystems that are increasingly under threat.