Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Nature of Science and the Science of Man

In a previous blog entry, I made reference to what world renowned psychologist Erich Fromm called the science of man[sic], and it occurred to me that one of the things I remember quite vividly from my first college level course in psychology was that psychology seemed to be fighting for recognition as a legitimate science. The same thing is true of all social science disciplines, which has created all sorts of problems for social and behavioral scientists (such as Fromm) who do not suffer from this sort of disciplinary inferiority complex. To wit, many social and behavioral scientists are too busy trying to prove that they are legitimate scientists to prove or disprove much of anything else.

Scientists who work in the social and behavioral sciences are often more scientific in their methods of inquiry than scientists who study sciences such as chemistry and physics. To wit, it is fairly common for social and behavioral scientists to come up with scientific hypotheses that they hope to use to explain and predict human behavior. However, this does not mean that social and behavioral scientists actually believe in their theoretical constructs. Rather, they hope to disprove their theories and come up with even better theories to explain and predict human behavior. That's what science is all about.

In striking contrast to the research that is the essence of the social and behavioral sciences, very few scientists who work in fields such as chemistry and physics are actively engaged in cutting edge research. More often than not, they spend their time learning about theoretical constructs that have withstood the test of time and applying those theoretical constructs to practical situations in the real world. In essence, they are technicians rather than scientists, and the technology that they rely upon is nowhere near as reliable as they would have you believe.

A friend of mine is a research chemist who works for a company that manufactures gas chromatography equipment. For those of you who don't know what gas chromatography equipment is, it's the stuff that crime labs use to figure out what substances are in the evidence that they have collected. My friend spends every business day from 8am to 5pm troubleshooting this equipment for people who call in with questions, with one hour off for lunch and the occasional sick day, holiday, or vacation day, and the stories that she tells are frightening.

After an hour or so of talking to my friend the research chemist, anyone with a scientific background would be ready to dismiss all crime lab conclusions as being about as reliable as the conclusions reached by a Tarot card reader. Similarly, my own background in the hard sciences left me wanting more from science, but not in terms of conclusions. What I wanted from science was a tool that helped me discover and understand the world and the universe around me, and I found what I was looking for when I took my first college level course in anthropology.

My first college level course in anthropology was a course in physical anthropology. As a discipline, physical anthropology has more of the trappings of science than any other brand of anthropology, as it begins and ends with genetics and the Theory of Evolution. But for me, physical anthropology was a gateway from the cold, hard scientific disciplines that I knew to scientific disciplines that were, quite literally, living and breathing. To wit, although physical anthropology held my interest through graduate level courses, my primary interest quickly turned to cultural anthropology. I saw obvious parallels between biological human evolution and cultural evolution, and I wanted to operationalize scientific theories of the latter. The transition point where these two branches of anthropology meet each other head on is at the amorphous level of Mendellian genetics, where genetic traits are shared and inherited by a group of organisms in much the same way that thoughts and ideas are shared and inherited by a culture group.

I think it's fair to say that thought is the DNA of human culture, but thought does not lend itself to the type of precise coding, mapping, and analysis that can be done with human DNA, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis notwithstanding. To wit, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would have us believe that "language structures thought," but I am of the opinion that "language frustrates thought," as evidenced by the fact that the right words are often so hard to find and some thoughts appear to be totally ineffable. Even so, language does give us a window into the nature of human thought, and it is one of the best windows that we have at the present time.


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