Breaking the Laws

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In what ways do the laws of the human sciences differ from those of the natural sciences? While the astute DP observer might quickly recognize this as a “knowledge question” and swiftly relegate it to the domain of a TOK course, for some it is an issue whose importance extends deep into the heart of the social sciences themselves and is profoundly related to why so many real-world models – from economics to politics to management – have so often proved to be little short of disastrous.

Mark Bevir, Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley, is a strong believer in the importance of focusing on the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences because he believes that answering that question points the way to dramatically increasing our social understanding.

Mark believes that far too many of his colleagues suffer from a form of “physics envy”. To those of us who run kicking and screaming at the first sign of a physics equation, such a term might seem more than a little bizarre to say the least, but what he means is not so much a desire to actually do physics (which few find desirable), but to be considered as their field’s equivalent to the intellectual giants who have transformed our understanding of the physical world – like Einstein or Newton (which many do find desirable).  After all, who wouldn’t like to be compared to the likes of Stephen Hawking, single-handedly penetrating the profound subtleties of black holes unconstrained by his own physical surroundings?

But there is, Mark reminds us, a very big difference between black holes and political systems.  Black holes will do their thing completely independent of people and their beliefs and desires. Political systems, on the other hand, will not.

“In the natural sciences, when you’re engaging with the natural world, you’re looking at objects which don’t have intentionality; whereas when you’re looking at human actors, you’re looking at objects – people – that clearly do have intentionality, and that we therefore assume are capable of acting for reasons of their own.

“For instance, if I drop a pen and ask, ‘Why did that pen fall down?’, you would accept an answer like, ‘Gravity’.  But if I suddenly sit down on the floor when we’re walking along and you ask, ‘Why did you sit on the floor?’ and I respond, ‘Gravity’, you’ll think I’m nuts, because you’ll expect me to give you a reason directly related to my beliefs and desires.

“And if you do that, if you treat the reasons people have for acting as the cause of their actions, then the type of explanation you’re going to offer is very different, because you have to appeal to people’s reasons in the wider web of their beliefs and desires.   

“And the kind of explanation you get by making an action intelligible by locating it in the context of a web of beliefs and desires is very, very different from the search for invariant laws that occurs in the natural sciences.”

Well, fine, you might think.  But so what? After all, you can call it whatever you want, but the key question remains: ‘Does it work?’  Does political science, for instance, actually deliver the goods?  Does it help us better understand key social concepts and help us build more productive and equitable societies?  Does it help ensure that our leaders are more attuned to our desires? Does it, in short, help us make social progress?

Well, there’s the rub.  Because Mark believes that correctly appreciating what social progress is and does, has a direct and overwhelming bearing on our everyday lives.

If we adopt the false belief that the social world is composed of some unchanging, fundamental entities – the social science equivalent to atoms or molecules – then our models will quite simply fail.  And equally significantly we won’t have any means of recognizing when a new social dynamic is created.

mathematics-111423_1920Such new dynamics don’t get created in physics or chemistry, of course.  Once you know the basic laws, everything should flow from there. And if you find that you somehow got to the wrong place, that is clear evidence that you have to go back and change your basic laws to account for how you got somewhere else.

But in the social sciences, where future possibilities are not governed by pre-set laws, but occur by some inherently unpredictable combination of contingency, traditions and social history involving highly complex interactions of large numbers of people, each of whom has separate beliefs and desires, it’s a very different story indeed.

So is it hopeless?  Does that mean that there can never be such thing as a “law” in the social sciences at all?  Is it even theoretically impossible to predict how large groups of people are going to act in any definite way?

Well, not necessarily.  Clearly, we will never have laws governing human behaviour that we expect to work at the same level of sure-fire predictability as Newton’s laws.  If we want to know how fast our pen will be falling when it hits the ground, for example, we can confidently calculate that with great precision for any pen, released from any height.  But to understand why someone suddenly sat down, we have to roll up our sleeves and try to imagine why they might become sufficiently tired that sitting down seems like the best option.

Given everyone’s different level of stamina and fatigue and enthusiasm, together with a whole host of factors that we will never even be able to clearly identify (or that the subjects themselves are often fully aware of), the consequent models we develop to account for social phenomena will never have the same sort of iron-clad predictive power as those for our pens.  But that hardly means they might not be very helpful in better appreciating and to some extent predicting a whole range of social facts. It simply means that we should approach the problem with a very different expectation of “predictability” and “validity” in our social science models than our natural science models. In other words, in order to make genuine progress in the social sciences, we necessarily have to grapple with a great deal more subtlety and ambiguity.  And it is precisely this vital subtlety and ambiguity that our TOK knowledge questions zero in on:

To what extent can we be certain that human behaviour is predictable?  How do we know if a “law” in the social sciences is valid?  

Like any knowledge question, these questions do not have simple answers.  That might be frustrating to a physicist. But for the rest of us, it’s hardly a disaster.  After all, pens might be predictable. But they are also pretty boring.

Howard Burton,

To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see below a number of related expert resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers a dynamic IB-specific database of 500+ authoritative video and print resources featuring more than 80 world-leading researchers, including two Nobel Laureates, explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the Diploma Programme – please visit our new website  for further information.

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