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Are the Natural Sciences More Reliable Sources of Knowledge Than Social Sciences?


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Are the natural sciences more reliable sources of knowledge than social sciences?

To be able to determine the reliability of knowledge within the sciences, an understanding of what is meant when referring to knowledge is required as well as an understanding of how this knowledge is created. Knowledge has been defined in various ways, depending upon the context is to be used in. As Çakir (2012, p.665) defines it: “Knowledge is the communication between individuals who share decisions and actions”. When relating to the creation of “knowledge” within the sciences, this is the most fitting definition due to the method of study and peer review that allows information to be taken as truthful. This essay will look at some of the differences between the two branches of science, the different ways in which natural and social science discover new information through experimentation, the natural evolution of the sciences, and how dissension among members of the social sciences holds them back from creating reliable knowledge.

The natural sciences have been the subject of study for over six hundred years, starting in the fourteenth century and progressing steadily throughout the years. The natural sciences set the foundations for inquiry and have previously gone through the trials and errors that the social sciences, having only been the subject of study for around two hundred and forty years, are currently going through. While the history of the of social sciences has been noted to have started around the eighteenth century with the Age of Enlightenment, it was not until the nineteenth century that the field began to see expansive research (Brittain 1986, p. 631). Although there are multiple similarities uniting the natural and social sciences, the fields of study are quite separate. While natural science focuses on the core areas of physics, biology, and chemistry, social science focuses on the phenomena of social interaction and synchronism of either a group of people or a single individual. (Boutellier, Gassmann & Raeder 2011, p. 2)

During the twentieth century the main basis of investigation for social sciences was influenced heavily by the methods initiated by the natural sciences in previous years (Smelser 2005, p.237). The structure for acquiring knowledge followed that of the “hypothetico-deductive method” where theories are proposed, hypotheses drawn, and data gathered through experiments to prove or disprove the hypotheses (Brittain 1986, p 634). In emulating the natural sciences this way the social sciences have been unable to benefit from the objectivity that the natural sciences rely on (Latour 2000, p. 107). While the two sciences are known to share similar methodology, and to a point, epistemological and ontological outlooks, social science has had more need to base its findings through interpretation, as experiments are not able to be controlled as easily as those in the natural sciences (Gordon 1993, p. 640). Where natural science is generally subject to more systematic and clinical methods of investigation, social science has mainly used the method of observation (Boutellier, Gassmann & Raeder 2011, p. 4), however the argument that observation does not produce “facts” due to the cultural bias that the observer brings to the situation was raised by Richard Rorty (cited in Çakir 2012, p. 665), who opined that the results of experiments were dependent upon the views of the social scientists conducting them. This is an issue that can impede the creation of knowledge in social science, due to the interpretive nature of the research it is often hard to validate the results. When using observation in experiments, the results can be relative to the observer’s background and expectations. By bringing their historical knowledge and practice to the experiment, the ability to view the process with impartiality is harder (Latour 2000, p.115).

As stated previously, experiments carried out by social scientists are not as easily controlled as when experimenting in the natural sciences. In some areas of social science, such as psychology and sociology, ethics dictate the necessity of assuring the privacy and both physical and mental safety of the human subjects being studied (Boutellier, Gassmann & Raeder 2011, p. 4). Due to the diverse nature of the social sciences, the unique nature of each subject, and the need to ensure that the subjects are not able to impact the outcome, it is rare to be able to replicate the results of experiments (Brittain 1986, p. 640; Latour 2000, p 115).

One issue that limits the creation of knowledge in the social sciences is the lack of unanimity regarding the approach to study in the field. Over the years, there has been great debate over the study methods applied to social sciences with some, such as Peter Winch (cited in Bohman 1991, p 57), arguing that it is not appropriate to apply the same methodology as natural sciences and that it would be in error to examine them this way, as they are not aligned with the purposes of social science (Gordon 1993, p. 635; Bohman 1991, pp.57-59). Philosophers and methodologists have tried for many years to unite the undertakings of the social sciences without success (Bohman 1991, p. vii). As there are many different philosophies or “schools of thought” regarding the social sciences, with each providing their own methodology, the result of any number of experiments may not be able to produce a consensus on the findings from peers due the disagreements regarding the framework and identifying what may count as valid knowledge toward the field (Smelser 2005, p. 240). Each new generation of social scientists follow a chosen school of thought, whether it is logical empiricism, post empiricism, scientific realism, post modernism or hermeneutics, and in doing so, will focus their attention mainly on the history, documents, and experiments within the discipline of which they follow (Brittain 1986, p 636; Çakir 2012, p. 664). Even the methodology for the validation of information is varied across the separate philosophies of the social sciences and discussion on what qualifies as truthful knowledge evolves along with the understanding and interpretation of the nature of truth (Çakir 2012, p 664).

Many social scientists would like to believe that knowledge in social science is universal, however it is common for social scientists to be biased towards information published in their own regions or native language (Brittain 1986, p. 635). Though while certain laws have been recognised and a number of empirical variables analysed, social science has yet to reach a stage where global laws are acknowledged (Dreikurs 1987, p. 266), which leaves the field in much the same position as it was fifty years ago (Holcomb, Beal, & Lee 2011, p. 102). While the natural sciences prefer to handle and consult documents from within a decade since they were written (Brittain 1986, p. 634), social science relies on documents that can date back to 1885. This is partially due to the limited amount of information being published within the subject and that around ninety per cent of the literature is produced by around five percent of the social science population, as few pursue a career involving writing or publishing (Brittain 1986, p. 637-638).

History has shown that continuous growth and adaption is natural, though while evolution in the natural sciences has been shown to move somewhat slowly, the evolution of the social sciences moves at an ever-changing rate with shifting empirical conditions and social structural changes (Smelser 2005, p 246) taking effect sometimes as quickly as every twenty years, as was seen throughout the twentieth century through the changes instigated by war and racial discrimination (McGuire 1986, p.93). Charles Darwin (cited in Nowotny 2005, p 29) asserted that variability, one of the core determinants of evolution, is more notable in forms that evolve fastest, which can make long term experiments in the social sciences very difficult. The cognitive ability of humans has shown that they are able to mature and advance with the discoveries being made within the social sciences (McGuire 1986, pp. 101-103). This leads to some theories or findings in these fields to become out-dated very quickly. However, with each new peer group, old theories are revised and there is a persistent urge to reassess interpretations of previous decades (Brittain 1986, p 636).

The view of validity within the social sciences is evolving and consideration needs to be given to the fact that the creation of knowledge within the field is of a different order from those found in natural science (Brittain 1986, p. 634). Due to the constantly changing nature of social science, information is not always held as absolute, and while previous findings may not be considered incorrect, nor are they completely true for the current period. It is necessary to take into account that unlike the natural sciences, some social science theories and experiments are unable to be driven to absolute conclusion, as they are unable to be either proven or disproven, and often consensus is hard to obtain (Brittain 1986, pp. 634-635). In this way, when it comes to being able to present the truthfulness of a claim, the natural sciences have proven to be a more reliable source of knowledge than the social sciences.


Bohman, J 1991, New philosophy of social science, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Boutellier, R, Gassmann, O & Raeder, S 2011, ‘What is the difference between social and natural sciences?’, <>.

Brittain, J 1986, 'Information services and knowledge creation in the social sciences', International Social Science Journal, vol. 38, no. 110, p. 631, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 6 November 2012.

Çakir, M 2012, 'Epistemological dialogue of validity: Building validity in educational and social research’, Education, vol. 132, no. 3, pp. 664-674, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 7 November 2012.

Dreikurs, R 1987, 'Are psychological schools of thought outdated?', Individual Psychology: The Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, vol. 43, no. 3, p. 265, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 18 November 2012.

Gordon, S 1993, The foundations of science, Routeledge, London, pp 634-640, <>.

Holcomb, L, Beal, C, & Lee, J 2011, 'Supersizing social studies through the use of web 2.0 technologies', Social Studies Research & Practice, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 102-111, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 18 November 2012.

Latour, B 2000, ‘When things strike back: A possible contribution of ‘science studies' to the social sciences’, British Journal Of Sociology, vol. 51, no. 1, pp. 107-123, Wiley Online Library, viewed 5 November 2012.

McGuire, W 1986, 'The vicissitudes of attitudes and similar representational constructs in twentieth century psychology', European Journal Of Social Psychology, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 89-130, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 November 2012.

Nowotny, H 2005, ‘The increase of complexity and its reduction: Emergent interfaces between the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences’, Theory Culture Society, vol. 22, no. 15, pp. 15-31, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 6 November 2012.

Smelser, NJ 2005, 'The questionable logic of "mistakes" in the dynamics of knowledge growth in the social sciences', Social Research, vol. 72, no. 1, pp. 237-262, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 7 November 2012.

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