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Social Science IS Science!

I recently had virtual visits with two 10th-grade biology classes. This prompted some reminiscing about my own time in high school.

Back then, I never would’ve guessed that I’d be a scientist one day. The main reason? I didn’t (and still don’t) have a strong interest in biology, chemistry, geology, or physics. And in high school, those were what “science” was. Conversely, my favorite class, psychology, was an “elective.”

At their core, sciences are fields that follow the scientific method. Scientists ask questions about the way something (from subatomic particles to the universe) works, systematically test potential answers to those questions, and report their results.

The scientific method is central to natural sciences that we typically study in school. But, the scientific method is also central to social sciences, like psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, geography, and political science. Unfortunately, social sciences typically get short shrift in public education.

To secure a little evidence to back up my beef, I looked at the results of the Fairfax County Regional Science and Engineering Fair. (Fairfax County Public Schools is the 11th-largest public school district in the US*, and I was a student there for 9 years.) In 2021, there were 21 project categories. Six categories had “bio” in their name. Three had “engineering” in their name. Plants and animals each got their own category.

All of behavioral and social science got a single category. One.**

Looking down the list of science fair winners,*** there were 10 grand prize winners, 6 grand prize alternates, and 24 first-place projects. Zero of these were from the Behavioral and Social Sciences category. Across all of the winners, grand prize through honorable mention, 8 of 191 (4%) were from Behavioral and Social Sciences.

This isn’t just an issue in high schools. I’m involved in several “science communication” groups and social media streams, and I can’t remember seeing anyone else who comes from social science or public health.

There are a few reasons why I’m bummed about this, aside from my sometimes feeling like the odd woman out.

First, framing social science as science introduces students to a wider array of career options. We’re all naturally curious about human behavior, and some people get paid to study it! What makes marriages last? What are effective alternatives to incarceration? How do we expect people to spend their economic stimulus checks? Social scientists answer these questions (and more!) that are critical to our well-being.

Second, solid knowledge of the scientific method allows us to think critically about research across all subject areas. For example, if students learn about randomized control trials in the context of psychology experiments, they should have a better understanding of the results from vaccine trials.

In short, I would love to see schools, and organizations that support STEM outreach, bring social sciences into the “science” fold.

Who’s with me? Comment below!

*Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_largest_school_districts_in_the_United_States_by_enrollment

**Perhaps the only field that got more short-changed was astronomy.  It covers the entire universe and had to split a single category with physics.

***Please excuse any minor counting errors in this post; I had to count the ~191 winners by hand.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This reminds me of a snippet of lecture I recently heard by Alan Watts:

    “…I came across a shop which had a notice over the window which said ‘Philosophical Instruments’. Even as a boy I knew something about philosophy, but I couldn’t imagine what philosophical instruments could be. So I went up to the window and there are displayed where chronometers, slide rules, scales, and all kinds of what we would now call scientific instruments. Because science used to be called natural philosophy.”

    As a professor of data science for public policy, I’m with you all the way. It seems every discipline is – eventually – getting some sort of “computational” version of it. Sure, “computational biology” is going to grow more rapidly than “computational political science” due to the sheer amount of available and collectable data in the former, but with new ways of measuring human behavior (e.g. the “Quantified Self” movement and Fitbits), I think we’ll see more traditional humanities pathways having a computational counterpart.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jamison! I like that story, and it’s always great to connect with fellow social scientists. (Fist bump!)

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