The complexity of human beings cannot be overstated. We have the potential for so much light and, in equal measure, so much darkness, and while our genetic makeup may be nearly identical, we are all vastly different. Two people with similar backgrounds can diverge paths dramatically: one could grow up to become the next Nobel Prize winner, the other a convicted murderer serving 25 to life in prison. It’s where the core “Nature vs. Nurture” argument originates. Are we born bad, or do our circumstances make us that way? Can we intervene early on to combat violent, aggressive, or harmful behaviors? To what extent is the society we live in responsible for who we are and what we do? Understanding the how and why behind these questions is crucial not just for our understanding of the human race but for our ability to help hurting people and prevent destructive behaviors from causing more collateral damage. And it’s because of this that I can assert with absolute confidence and certainty that social sciences are just as important as physical sciences.
This is my third year as a double-major in social sciences. Next spring, I will graduate with a B.S. in Psychology and a B.A. in Criminal Justice (which is a mixture of sociology, criminology, and political science studies—i.e. more social sciences), and I’m extremely proud of myself and what I study. In those three years, I’ve learned so much about people, their minds, what causes them to do the things they do, why our society is structured the way it is, and on top of that, I’ve taken enough statistics-based research classes to quote the Scientific Method to you verbatim (and backwards, if I wanted a challenge).
My point is that I’ve got just as extensive a background in research as any Biology, Chemistry, [insert physical science of choice here] major. Remember: I told you I would be graduating with a Bachelor of Science next spring. So you can imagine my frustration every time I explain to someone that I’m studying psychology or criminal justice and their immediate response is an (often condescending) statement along the lines of, “Oh, you’re a soft science” or “So you’re just a social science.”
Everyone say it with me:
Social sciences are just as important and valid as physical sciences.
One of the most popular arguments that I’m usually presented with when someone claims that these fields are “soft” sciences is that human thought and society are malleable and dynamic (they change) and so therefore we can never really “prove” anything. Now, they are right about one thing: human behavior is not constant, and “society” can’t be pinned down under a microscope. There are many methods of inquiry that we can’t pursue, simply because it would be unethical to do so—like zapping people’s brains. But social sciences, like any other science, follow the scientific method. We form hypotheses and test them rigorously. If anything, social scientists have to work harder than their physical scientist counterparts because of the fact that human beings are so complex and difficult to decipher.
Besides, science isn’t science because you prove something. That’s why we call our findings “theories.” Science is science because of its inquisitorial nature and its goal of discovery.
A “soft” science didn’t discover that there’s a difference between feeling “sad” or “stressed” and suffering from depression or anxiety—psychology did. And a “soft” science didn’t uncover that anomie, or social instability (kinda like a global pandemic, for example), can cause those mental illnesses to worsen—sociology did.
It’s time we stop downplaying what fields like psychology, sociology, and criminology do and instead start emphasizing their merits. If we’re ever going to build a better society for the next generation, we’re going to need to understand them. We’re going to need to understand us.