Defending the social sciences
To the Editors:
In his convocation address, President Mills exhorted faculty as well as students to seek out knowledge in disciplines other than their own. The need for such interaction was unintentionally, but vividly, displayed in the speech given by physics professor Madeline Msall.
In her speech, Professor Msall claimed that differences in human behavior, in part because they are multidetermined and cannot lead to concrete "laws," are inappropriate for scientific study. What Professor Msall failed to acknowledge is that it is exactly this complexity that motivates social and behavioral scientists. By insinuating that social and behavioral scientists do not adhere to the model of building theoretical hypotheses and generating strong tests of their predictions, Professor Msall indicated a lack of understanding of our fields. At best, these comments were careless. At worst, they constituted a severe criticism of the work conducted by a quarter of her colleagues at Bowdoin.
It is true that an individual's decision regarding how to act in a given situation is determined by a multitude of forces. Genetic, chemical, and physiological factors play roles, as do characteristics of the situation, cognitive processes, and the developmental history of the person. In their classes, the developmental psychologists in our department encourage students to move beyond the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture implicated in Professor Msall's argument, to appreciate the interdependent and reciprocal ways in which biological and environmental processes act together to determine behavior. Such an approach, involving collaboration between the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, lends strong insight into the human experience.
Professor Msall's comments regarding the social and behavioral
sciences were especially surprising, since she noted early in her speech
that following the scientific method holds promise for conquering problems
such as racism and poverty. Through the use of scientific methodology,
economics professors at Bowdoin predict the responses of consumers, government
professors at Bowdoin enhance our legislature's ability to evaluate policy
to alleviate social ills, and sociology professors at Bowdoin study processes
critical in the design of programs to combat racism and sexism.
Paradoxically, Professor Msall asserted that social forces have played a strong role in discouraging young women who show promise in science from fulfilling this potential. Presumably, Professor Msall arrived at this belief through her (perhaps limited and selective) exposure to social science. It is equally ironic that she used the science of cognitive psychology to put forth her claims about the nature of everyday problem solving with all the conviction that this science warrants. Thus, Professor Msall appears to dismiss, or at best diminish, behavioral science while at the same time using findings from this science to support her thesis.
It would have been helpful if Professor Msall had, at the outset of her talk, put forth her formal and explicit definition of science itself. If, as she suggested, her criteria of scientific inquiry include the ability to generate universal causal laws and to predict with one hundred percent certainty the outcome of any individual case, then we are left to wonder whether many areas of inquiry in biology, chemistry, and even physics meet her criteria.
Professor Barbara Held,
Professor Seth Ramus,
To the Editors:
Consider medical diagnostic tests. Though few are 100 percent accurate,
they still help us find hidden medical problems.