Academia

Academia:

Too much Social Science
Not Enough Social Technology

At this point I have to get into the intellectual history of the subject, and of course all the intellectual history I know comes from a very unreliable source by the name of Neville, so I’d suggest the use of large amounts of salt.

As the story was told to me, in the beginning the world was without form and void, and then God said “Let Newton Be” and there was light. (That formulation of the story obviously predates Mr. Neville, but the following doesn’t.) After Newton, apple, gravity, and all that, the precursors of social science people (including the Adam Smith of Moral Sentiments and many others down to the present day) were insanely jealous of Professor Newton, because he had single handedly discovered a Force of Nature. Up until Einstein nobody ever considered gravity except as something utterly real, a piece of mathematical perfection, on which the toolmarks of the Deity could be clearly seen.

So inspired, the primitive social science types and psychologists started to look for Forces of Nature, the real truth (sorry, I mean the Real Truth) underlying the shabby exteriors of human beings.

And so, while we have a department of physics, clearly a science, and a department of electrical engineering, clearly a technology, only the poor cousin of a True Science — we don’t really have a department of psychological engineering or sociological engineering.

Psychologist and sociologists are utterly determined to be real scientists, and so place their gathering of “Knowledge”, meaning scientific knowledge, which, following Newton, they all understand to be prior to and infinitely more important than any mere technology or applied science, (to which they a lot only an handful of courses — the applied science must obviously wait for the pure science which is just around the corner, real soon now).

But for me the “how-to” knowledge, technology, is not inferior to or logically subsequent to the “what and why” knowledge which is science. In fact, I say, until that great day when psychology and sociology appear in their true glory as (sense the capital letters) true sciences, with a genuine body of scientific knowledge, i.e. real soon now, technology is actually more important and clearly “prior” to the what-and-why sciences.

Indeed, how do you know when psychological or sociological knowledge is correct? If you read the textbooks and look at what these people do, you see a lot of statistical “tests of significance” which purport to show when some correlation between two variables is really significant and when it is just some artifact of the experiment. But in fact the best way of finding out if some psych or sociological “truth” is real is just to look at what it helps you to DO. If psych. or sociological “facts” are facts, then there should be something that they will enable you to do, that you couldn’t do before. Some “applied science” or technology.

(A gap in the argument here, perhaps? Please ignore it, all of this page is very much underconstruction, even if not marked by the over-familiar Black GIF.

There is some limited use of psychological testing, and at MDA large numbers of us were given Briggs-Myers tests and counselled about our personality factors. But at MDA, as at almost all other places, there was no real attempt to use this to actually do something. It seems obvious to me that groups of INTP types like ourselves should not be put together in teams, and even used as project managers, an obvious ESTJ or ESFJ role.

A large part of why this stuff is rarely used for something useful has to do with it’s status as a supposed psychological theory, i.e. something to be proven in the laboratory, not something to be used in the field. There are lots of such theories, all based on some variant of factor analysis and to my way for thinking all more or less equivalent.

Part of the trouble is more profound — elsewhere I noted that the computational power of a universe of computers could not solve the human combinatorial problems, “even if all the compatibility information had already been provided” (or some such words). But there is quite a lot that could be achieved with even rough approximate solutions.

My complaint is really that no one seems to be working on these problems — we are all still left to make our own social connections as best we can, and to hell with compatibility or appropriateness.

I’d be much happier if universities and colleges could take these comments seriously and provide courses in social technology, based on material such as these web pages. I don’t seriously imagine this will happen any time soon, but it is still something to wish for. For that matter, as long as I am indulging myself in fantasies, I’ve often wished I could have a hand in the creation of a new university or college, which I would organize very differently, using the optimization approach in which students could be matched to the most appropriate courses (or better yet, to individual lectures and seminars). But that is sheer fantasy, and I have indulged myself in it quite enough for one web page.

If you have not already done so, you might check out A Personal Narrative and the other pages it refers to.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson

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