Bite Size: Social Scientists Should Be Like Engineers?

In a recent Scientific American Article, John Horgan tells social scientists they should solve problems, not try and develop universal theories like physicists. he propose they should try to be like engineers not physicists. 

I have some reservations about his bold comments, however I imagine his lack of nuance comes in part from trying to make a proactive point. Regardless it is a stimulating read we often learn the most for those who we only partial agree with.

Here are three standout quotes that summarize the article well.

#1 “Those [Social Scientists] I admire most combine rigorous empiricism with a resistance to absolute answers.”

#2 “Social scientists should consider identifying not with the harder sciences or the humanities but with engineering. They don’t seek “the truth,” a unique and universal explanation of a phenomenon or solution to a problem. In fact, engineers would scoff at such a formulation of their work. They seek merely answers to specific, localized, temporary problems, whether building a bridge with less steel or a more efficient solar panel or a smartphone with a bigger memory. Whatever works, works.”

#3 “In the same way, social scientists [like engineers] should eschew the quest for truths about human behavior.”

The last quote seems to get a little extreme for me.

First, I will credit that social science is often not about absolute truth. Instead social science seeks to use truth as a tool to accomplish something (e.g. solve a problem of poverty in Africa). However, basic questions about “what it is to be human” are important and I believe worthy of at least some social scientists’ time and funding.

Second, I know anybody over at the Journal of Consumer Research and similar journals that prize “conceptual contribution” also would like to point out that pursuing truth leads to solving problems. Basic social science research is a necessity. However it does need to be  balanced with what I believe Horgan is calling for and has been called on by people such as the grandfather of social psychology Kurt Lewin.

Mr. Horgan, I have my reservations but I also feel inspired by you at the same time.

Check it out yourself, here is the link.

Bite Size articles allow you get a “bite” of the article before reading it and also hear a little commentary from us at PSB.


2 thoughts on “Bite Size: Social Scientists Should Be Like Engineers?

  1. I agree with your reservations about the last quote there. We may not always be able to assess capital-T ‘TRUTH’ but we have explanations for a wide range of behaviors. Comments like Mr. Horgan’s always make me think that people are afraid of having their ideas about human nature challenged in meaningful ways. This, I think, is the crux of good social science: challenging out beliefs about ourselves.

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