Fact is, there are some absolutes

July 12, 1996

The distrust expressed within the social sciences towards the physical sciences - and, by extension, towards their practitioners - is profound. As someone from a physical science background (medicine) who has recently completed a course of study in a social science discipline (anthropology), I felt disposed to comment on this.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the way in which there are no acknowledged absolutes in the social sciences; everything percolates down to opinion. The fact that there are absolutes is never acknowledged. The presentation of every tenet has to be accompanied by an explanation: the justification employed is that no previous knowledge can be assumed. The difficulty here is that, if, in the social sciences, every "fact" is nothing more than opinion, the same analysis is applied to the physical sciences. Therefore, actual, concrete, physical fact is similarly treated as if it were nothing more than opinion. The social scientists' reaction to physical science can therefore, at its worst, descend into ridicule.

This is what may have been behind the "establishment" encouragement toward physical science subjects in British education in the 1970s and 1980s: a realisation that some things are fact and that this is an essential basis on which to build and test further hypotheses. Opinions within the social sciences should be clearly presented as such. Otherwise the danger is that these same opinions are understood by credulous undergraduate students to be fact.


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