What is Science? (((((Re: AAT Theory

H. M. Hubey (hubey@pegasus.montclair.edu)
11 Sep 1995 21:22:57 -0400

jared Diamond

============Discover Magazine, August 1987=======================
DISCLAIMER: I don't agree with much of what he writes. He doesn't
know much about science himself since he's a biologist :-)......

"The overall correlation between frustration and instability
[in 62 countries of the world] was 0.50"
Sam Huntington, prof.of govern., Harvard

"This is utter nonsense. How does Huntington measure things like
social frustration? Does he have a social-frustration meter? I
object to the academy's certifying as science what are merely
political opinions."
Serge Lang, prof. of Math., Yale

For those who love to watch a dogfight among intellectuals supposedly
above such things, it's been a fine dogfight. In one corner, political
scientist and co-author of The Crisis in Democracy, Samual Huntington.
In the other corner, mathematician and author of **Diophantine
Approximation on Abelian Varieties with Complex Multiplication**, Serge
Lang. The issue: whether Huntington should be admitted,over Lang's
opposition, to an academy of which Lang is a member. The score after
two rounds: Lang 2, Huntington 0, with Huntington still out.

..this particular dogfight is an important one. Beneath the name
calling, it has to do with a central question in science: Do the soft
sciences, like political science and psychology, really constitute science
at all, and do they deserve to stand beside "hard sciences" like
chemistry and physics?

The arena is the normally dignified and secretive National Academy of
Sciences (NAS), an honor society of more than 1,500 leading American
scientists drawn from every discipline.
Disturbed by what he saw as the use of "pseudo mathematics" by Huntington,
Lang sent all NAS members several thick mailings attacking Huntington,
enclosing photocopies of letters describing what scholar A said in
response to scholar B's attack on scholar C, and asking members for
money to help pay the postage and copying bills.

To understand the terms soft and hard science, just ask any educated
person what science is. The answer you get will probably involve
several stereotypes: science is something done in the laboratory,
possibly by people wearing white coats and holding test tubes; it
involves making measurements with instruments, accurate to several
decimal places; and it involves controlled,repeatable experiments in
which you keep everything fixed except for one or few things that
you allow to vary. Areas of science that often conform well to these
stereotypes include much of chemistry, physics, and molecular biology.
These areas are given flattering name of hard science, because they use
the firm evidence that controlled experiments and highly accurate
measurements can provide.

We often view hard science as the only type of science. But science
(from Latin scientia --knowledge) is something more much more general,
which isn't defined by decimal places and controlled experiments. It
means the enterprise of explaining and predicting--gaining knowledge of--
natural phenomena, by continually testing one's theories against empirical
evidence. The world is full of phenomena that are intellectually
challenging and important to understand, but that can't be measured
to several decimal places in labs. They constitute much of ecology,
evolution, and animal behavior; much of psychology and human behavior;
and all the phenomena of human societies, including cultural anthropology,
economics, history and government.

These soft sciences, as they are pejoratively termed, are more difficult
to study, for obvious reasons. A lion hunt or revolution in the Third
World doesn't fit inside a test tube. You can't start it or stop it
whenever you choose. You can't control all the variables; perhaps you
can't control any variable. You may even find it hard to decide what
a variable is. You can still use empirical tests to gain knowledge, but
the types of tests used in the hard sciences must be modified. Such
differences between the hard and soft sciences are regularly misunderstood
by hard scientists, who tend to scorn soft sciences and reserve special
contempt for the social scientists.
I began my career at the hard pole of chemistry and physics, then took
my PhD in membrane physiology, at the hard end of biology. Today I
divide my time equally between physiology and ecology, which lies at
the soft end of biology.
Although I don't agree with some of Lang's conclusions, I feel he has
correctly identified a key problem in soft science when he asks, "How
does Huntington measure things like social frustration? Does he have a
social-frustration meter?" Indeed, unless one has thought seriously
about research in the social sciences, the idea that anyone can measure
social frustration seems completely absurd.

The issue that Lang raises is central to any science, hard or soft. It
may be termed the problem of how to "operationalize" a concept. (Normally
I hate such neologistic jargon, but it's a suitable term in this case. To
compare evidence with theory requires that you measure the ingredients
of your theory. For ingredients like weight or speed it's clear what to
measure, but what would you measure if you wanted to understand political
instability? Somehow, you would have to design a series of actual operations
that yield a suitable measurement -- i.e. you must first operationalize
the ingredients of theory.

Scientists do this all the time, whether or not they think about it.
Let's start with mathematics, often described as the queen of the sciences.
...Without a number system to operationalize their concept of "many", the
cave women could never [have] prove[n] to each other which tree had better
Now let's move to chemistry, less queenly and more difficult to
operationalize than mathematics but still a hard science.... Analytical
chemistry now proceeds by identifying some property of a substance of
interest... The property must be one that can be measured, like weight,
or the light that the substance absorbs, or the amount of neutralizing
agent it consumes.
My next to last example is from ecology, one of the softer of the biological
sciences, and certainly more difficult to operationalize than chemistry.
Unfortunately, operationalizing lends itself to ridicule in the social sciences,
because the concepts being studied tend to be familiar ones that all of us
fancy we're experts on. Anybody, scientist or no, feels entitled to spout
forth on politics or psychology, and to heap scorn on what scholars in
those fields write. In contrast, consider the opening sentences of Lang's
paper **Diophantine Approximation on Abelian Varieties with Complex
Multiplication**: "Let A be an Abelian variety defined over a number
field K. We suppose that A is embedded in projective space. Let A_k be
the group of points on A rational over K". How many people feel entitled
to ridicule these statements while touting their own opinions about
abelian varieties?

No political scientist at NAS has challenged a mathematical candidate
by asking "How does he measure things like `many'? Does he have a
many-meter?" Such questions would bring gales of laughter over the
questioner's utter ignorance of mathematics. It seems to me that
Lang's question "How does Huntington measure things like social frustration?"
betrays an equal ignorance of how the social sciences make measurements.

The ingrained labels "soft science" and "hard science" could be replaced by
hard (i.e. difficult) science and easy science, respectively. Ecology and
psychology and the social sciences are much more difficult and, to some of
us, intellectually more challenging than mathematics and chemistry. Even if
NAS were just an honorary society, the intellectual challenge of the soft
sciences would by itself make them central to the NAS.

But NAS is more than an honorary society; it's a conduit for advice to
our government. As to the relative importance of the soft and hard science
for humanity's future, there can be no comparison. It matters little whether
we progress with understanding the diophantine approximation. Our survival
depends on whether we progress with understanding how people behave, why
some societies become frustrated, whether their governments tend to become
unstable, and how political leaders make decisions like whether to press
a red button. Our National Academy of Sciences will cut itself out of
intellectually challenging areas of science, and out of areas where NAS
can provide the most needed scientific advice, if it continues to judge
social scientists from a posture of ignorance.

About the ridiculousness of pumping out theory after theory
seemingly unconnected with anything, please read the next
article... "Twinkie Defenses".....


Regards, Mark