7.9. What Science Can and Can’t Do

7.9. What Science Can and Can’t Do

Science does a fantastic job of doing what it’s set up to do–but it does have limits.

Science does a fantastic job of doing what it’s set up to do.

Generating falsifiable hypotheses. Testing those hypotheses. And using the accumulation of research all over the world to be self-correcting, and advance human knowledge.

But science does have limits.

If you want to study something using the strictest application of the scientific method, it has to meet certain criteria.

It has to be static—something that will get the same result over and over again.

It has to be objective—something you can be sure two people will define in the same way.

It has to be measurable—so that people will get the same measurements.

It has to be manipulable—so that you can test it experimentally.

And it has to be falsifable—so that other people can test it, and disprove your hypothesis, if it’s incorrect.

That’s a pretty daunting list of requirements.

And the fact is, not everything that’s worth studying can be crammed into that framework.

That’s what makes the social sciences so challenging.

We try to maintain as much rigor and empiricism in the social sciences as we can.

But much of the time, we just aren’t dealing with things that are so static, objective, measurable, and manipulable.

We can’t always successfully—or ethically—put people in experiments.

We deal with things that are subjective, hard to measure, constantly changing, and vary day by day, place to place, and situation to situation.

The difference between the natural sciences and social sciences is like the difference between trying to hit a stationary target and trying to hit a moving target.

Yes, some of the principles of good marksmanship carry over. But not all of them do. With a moving target, you don’t have the luxury of setting up your shot. You’ve got to try to catch it in the wild—with the knowledge that it could change direction on you at any moment.

And yes, we tend to get more accurate results from the natural sciences. But we should expect that. What natural scientists do isn’t easy. But the things social scientists study are far more elusive and hard to pin down than what natural scientists study.

The important thing to remember, though, is the social sciences have the same system of falsifiability and self-correction as the natural sciences do.

The social sciences may not be able to be “proven” with the same reliability and permanence as the natural sciences. But it’s still the result of thousands of researchers, who’ve been sifting through the evidence for over a century, weeding out what doesn’t work and further developing what does.

So we really ought to trust both the natural and social sciences in their areas of inquiry.

They aren’t perfect. But they’re the best we’ve got. They provide the most accurate information, and the most rigorously tested explanations.

And it’s entirely possible to trust science without violating whatever religion you may believe in.

Because when it comes to claims that are falsifiable, science has got the goods.

But when it comes to claims that are unfalsifiable, that’s an area that, by definition, is “unscientific.”

So you can totally put your faith in science to do its thing, and in religion to explain the stuff beyond science—without being a bad scientist or a bad believer.


This is the 117th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.