Whenever I hear the words “sociology” and “science” used in the same sentence, I know that I am about to be sucked into an argument. The sticking point here is what, exactly constitutes science, and what makes someone a scientist.
If you ask a sociologist, they will say that sociology is a science, just like physics. If you ask a physicist, they will ask you what the sociologist was smoking when he made that statement. You see, the physicist knows that science is built by hypothesis and logic, but is only validated through empirical verification. A sociologist, on the other hand, might say that the hypothesis and the theory are enough (I say might, because some sociologists are true to the scientific method, and I don’t want to generalize excessively).
There are both practical and philosophical reasons for the sociologists’ position. Practical, in the sense that doing science with large groups of people can be difficult, and is understandable to a certain degree. The philosophical is more insidious, as it involves the sociologists’ belief that as a scientist his theories are valid, and can be built upon with no experimental confirmation, which leads to houses of cards that seem incredible (through the lens of observation of actual human behavior) to anyone but another sociologist.
Hence, the title of this post, oxymoronic as it is.
I don’t really mean to imply that all sociologists are pseudoscientists, of course. Many of them do keep their scientific training in mind and don’t fall into the trap of believing that well-constructed philosophy is in any way related to good science. The bad ones, of course, become social engineers.
Social Engineers seem to commit the classic logical error of taking something particular and generalizing it. The upside is that when they present a solution to this “problem”, they immediately have a compelling argument that shows that what they are proposing is important. Typically however, social engineers (especially amateur ones) create more problems than they solve, simply by trying to do good. Paving stones on the road to hell…
They spend all their time trying to cure symptoms as opposed to studying the numbers and making decisions based on what is really going on, and seem to think that a small amount of sacrifice from everyone seems to be justified, if that can keep an individual or small group from suffering a little bit more. Essentially, they are against any form of privilege and rile at anyone enjoying life when others can’t. They seem to feel that we all have to be in the same boat – despite the fact that history teaches us that that’s not the case. When, I ask of them, has everyone really been in the same boat?
So we end up with things like Prohibition, Political Correctness, the Hays Code, Library book banning, gender/race quotas in companies and universities, protests against genetically modified foods, and countless others. My favorite example is how many of the people involved in the anti-tobacco movement seem to be the same people pushing for the legalization of marijuana – despite the fact that a lot of the pulmonary health issues are the same!
To summarize, Social Engineering seems to be all about using small data sets to make generalizations about the whole of society, and to use anecdotal evidence (as opposed to statistically relevant evidence) and moral outrage when challenged. Then, using nothing but these arguments, they force everyone into doing what they want (helmets on $%&!! motorcycles, for christs sake!) Seeing the state of the world, it seems to be a surprisingly effective way of doing things…
To quote longtime Road and Track Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis:
Social Engineering is to Engineering what Social Disease is to disease. Both involve he hypocritical screwing of other people.
Yep, that’s precisely it. Sad that we still have to say it twenty years after he did!
*MAJOR Brownie points if you can tell me where this phrase came from initially – book and author.