Social Science Has Failed (by Any Practical Standard)

Time for a Wholistic Reconception or Why Science Needs Philosophy

Let’s start with a short list of disappointments:

  1. The Replication Crisis in Psychology,
  2. Little Progress in Evidence-based Social Science,
  3. Problems in Ed Reform and Ed Policy,
  4. The Failure of Standardized Testing
  5. the Scaling Back of AI Expectations;

It’s time to get real about the human sciences! Clear progress is not being made and methodological tweeks or better dissemination doesn’t look like a real answer. Individual studies can bring light to a specific question, but demonstrations of answers to larger questions in a large social field are few and far between. Let’s take the idea of Evidence-based Education, that educational practices should be based on the best education science; logically, it just can’t be questioned. But decades of reforms and the best technical tools and measures have largely failed to show progression in the field at large. We should at least be clear about what the issues are, but clarity seems to elude our grasp. What is going on?

First, A Look Back

At the turn to the 20th Century intellectuals sought ways to find or create conceptual clarity in philosophy and science. There were 2 primary camps in this project. One led by Carnap and the Logical Positivists, built on the work of Comte and previous positivists. A different approach was led by CS Peirce, John Dewey and the Pragmatists. Carnap’s project was based on existing European concepts, but Peirce and Dewey’s idea were developed from their understanding of semiotics, grounded in everyday experience and were more radical for the time. The analytic — synthetic distinction and other efforts to unify philosophy and science that were important to Carnap, were largely discredited, but Peirce’s approach was never taken up. As a result, clarity in science remains as problematic as ever and can go a long way to accounting for the problems noted earlier. It’s time to reconsider Peirce’s project who Sowahas recommended as an important philosophier for the 21st Century.

(Side Note — These differences should not be construed as polar oppositions like modernism — postmodernism. Both sides are based on empirical science and both acknowledge pragmatic elements. The primary differences relate to where and to what extent these pragmatic elements come into play.)

Hempel and Salmon explicitly agree that explanation has a pragmatic dimension . . . what is distinctive about pragmatic approaches to explanation is not just the bare idea that explanation has a “pragmatic dimension” but rather the further and much stronger claim that the traditional project of constructing a model of explanation pursued by Hempel and others has so far been unsuccessful ( and perhaps is boundto be unsuccessful) and that this is so becausepragmatic or contextual factors play a central and ineliminable role in explanation in a way that resists incorporation into models of the traditional sort.. . . traditional approaches are inadequate in principle because of their neglect of the pragmatic dimension of explanation. (Woodward, J., 2014)

More on some differences between the two approaches. The traditional goal of the sciences has been to build an edifice of knowledge (Rorty, 1999) that explains the natural world and to use that knowledge to clarify and guide our actions. Various philosophical approaches were taken to lay the foundation for this edifice in a way that would allow for law like propositions that could generalize across contexts. The analytic synthetic distinction, nomological deduction and generalization, operationalism, unity in science . . etc. By and large, much of this foundation was not successful and the resulting edifice can’t support its intended purpose. Why? As mentioned by Woodward above, this foundation failed to eliminate contextual factors in explanations. Consider this from Daniel Little (2008):

So where does this take us with regard to “unified social science”? It leads us to expect something else entirely: rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible

In term of the social sciences, this practically screams out for a pragmatic approach over the building of knowledge edifices. Take recent discussions of the marshmellow effect as an example. Walter Mischeldid experiments on delayed gratification using marshmallows and theorized that the ability to delay rewards would lead to success in later life. The long famous theory depends on delayed gratificatin as a stable personal trait. Recent replications of that experiment has found that though there is an beneficial effect, when environmental and other factors are accounted for, the significance becomes questionable (Kidd, Palmeri and Aslin, 2012; Watts, Duncan & Quan, 2018). The effects of contextual factor predominates.

A Wholistic and New Pragmatic Way

When WVO Quine (1951) critiqued Carnap’s Analytic/Synthetic distinction in his Two Dogmas of Empiricismpaper, he also critiqued the reductionism that depended on the Analytic Synthetic distinction and noted that this critique required a move toward a wholistic pragmatism. The exact way this should play out is not established, but John Dewey’s 3 fold theory of inquiry would be a good place to start. Leonard Waks (unpublished)describes Dewey’s theory of inquiry in 3 stages:

Stage one begins with an unsettling problem within a community or a community of practice.

Stage two continues through inquiry by various institutions of science to understand the nature of the problems and to develop knowledge and responses to the problem.

Stage three represents the application of knowledge to resolve the original problem and to demonstrate the validity of the results of the inquiry.

This theory of inquiry is throughly Pragmatic and honors contextual and environmental factors. I think this is the core idea. A science based practice is developed through inquiry, not by the application of knowledge handed down from on high by the ivory towers. Practice needs the support and technical know-how of knowledge institutions, but only if it is garnered by addressing community problems and by seeking validity through the successful application the results of inquiry in the community. This from the Wikipedia article on the Gettier Problem:

From a pragmatic viewpoint of the kind often ascribed to (William) James, defining on a particular occasion whether a particular belief can rightly be said to be both true and justified is seen as no more than an exercise in pedantry, but being able to discern whether that belief led to fruitful outcomes is a fruitful enterprise.


The results of social sciences on practical problems has been disappointing and exposes an underlying philosophical problem if we hope science to be anything more than an exercise in pedantry. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Method of Inquiry in one way to make science more relevant.

Here are 2 examples of how pragmatism might play out in a more specific example;

Finally, 2 more examples of of what a Pragmatic attitude might sound like.

This is why there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relation between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves. With Dewey I wish to emphasize that we always need to ask the question of whether our ends are desirable given the way in which we might be able to achieve them. In education the further question that always needs to be asked is about the educational quality of our means, that is, about what students will learn from our use of particular means or strategies. From this perspective it is disappointing, to say the least, that the whole discussion about evidence‐based practice is focused on technical questions — questions about “what works” — while forgetting the need for critical inquiry into normative and political questions about what is educationally desirable. If we really want to improve the relation between research, policy, and practice in education, we need an approach in which technical questions about education can be addressed in close connection with normative, educational, and political questions about what is educationally desirable. The extent to which a government not only allows the research field to raise this set of questions, but actively supports and encourages researchers to go beyond simplistic questions about “what works,” may well be an indication of the degree to which a society can be called democratic. From the point of view of democracy, an exclusive emphasis on “what works” will simply not work. (G Biesta, 2007)

An emphasis on disciplinary knowledge, on knowledge already formed and organized in textbooks, suggests to students that for the most part, what they need to learn is already known. But preexisting knowledge is never adequate for todays complex problems; these problems never yield to off-the shelf knowledge applied by experts.(Leonard Waks)