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Social Science Quotes (35 quotes)
Social Sciences Quotes


A biologist, if he wishes to know how many toes a cat has, does not "frame the hypothesis that the number of feline digital extremities is 4, or 5, or 6," he simply looks at a cat and counts. A social scientist prefers the more long-winded expression every time, because it gives an entirely spurious impression of scientificness to what he is doing.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 151.
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A troubling question for those of us committed to the widest application of intelligence in the study and solution of the problems of men is whether a general understanding of the social sciences will be possible much longer. Many significant areas of these disciplines have already been removed by the advances of the past two decades beyond the reach of anyone who does not know mathematics; and the man of letters is increasingly finding, to his dismay, that the study of mankind proper is passing from his hands to those of technicians and specialists. The aesthetic effect is admittedly bad: we have given up the belletristic “essay on man” for the barbarisms of a technical vocabulary, or at best the forbidding elegance of mathematical syntax.
Opening paragraph of 'The Study of Man: Sociology Learns the Language of Mathematics' in Commentary (1 Sep 1952). Reprinted in James Roy Newman, The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 2, 1294.
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A … difference between most system-building in the social sciences and systems of thought and classification of the natural sciences is to be seen in their evolution. In the natural sciences both theories and descriptive systems grow by adaptation to the increasing knowledge and experience of the scientists. In the social sciences, systems often issue fully formed from the mind of one man. Then they may be much discussed if they attract attention, but progressive adaptive modification as a result of the concerted efforts of great numbers of men is rare.
The Study of Man (1941), 19-20.
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Among the social sciences, economists are the snobs. Economics, with its numbers and graphs and curves, at least has the coloration and paraphernalia of a hard science. It's not just putting on sandals and trekking out to take notes on some tribe.
'A Cuba Policy That's Stuck On Plan A', opinion column in Washington Post (17 April 2009).
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And the Social Science … a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.
'Occasional Discourse', Fraser's Magazine (Dec 1849). Reprinted as a separate pamphlet (1853), reproduced in The Collected Works of Thomas Carlyle (1864), Vol. 13, 5.
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Communism is at once a complete system of proletarian ideology and a new social system. It is different from any other ideological and social system, and is the most complete, progressive, revolutionary, and rational system in human history.
In Mao Tse-Tung: On New Democracy: Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (1967), 32.
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From the infinitely great down to the infinitely small, all things are subject to [the laws of nature]. The sun and the planets follow the laws discovered by Newton and Laplace, just as the atoms in their combinations follow the laws of chemistry, as living creatures follow the laws of biology. It is only the imperfections of the human mind which multiply the divisions of the sciences, separating astronomy from physics or chemistry, the natural sciences from the social sciences. In essence, science is one. It is none other than the truth.
In Cours d’Economie Politique (1896-97).
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History without the history of science, to alter slightly an apothegm of Lord Bacon, resembles a statue of Polyphemus without his eye—that very feature being left out which most marks the spirit and life of the person. My own thesis is complementary: science taught ... without a sense of history is robbed of those very qualities that make it worth teaching to the student of the humanities and the social sciences.
'The History of Science and the Teaching of Science', in I. Bernard Cohen and Fletcher G. Watson (eds.), General Education in Science (1952), 71.
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Human behaviour reveals uniformities which constitute natural laws. If these uniformities did not exist, then there would be neither social science nor political economy, and even the study of history would largely be useless. In effect, if the future actions of men having nothing in common with their past actions, our knowledge of them, although possibly satisfying our curiosity by way of an interesting story, would be entirely useless to us as a guide in life.
In Cours d’Economie Politique (1896-7), Vol. 2, 397.
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If even in science there is no a way of judging a theory but by assessing the number, faith and vocal energy of its supporters, then this must be even more so in the social sciences: truth lies in power.
In Radio Lecture (30 Jun 1973) broadcast by the Open University, collected in Imre Lakatos, John Worrall (ed.) and Gregory Currie (ed.), 'Introduction: Science and Pseudoscience', The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (1978, 1980), Vol. 1, 9.
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In both social and natural sciences, the body of positive knowledge grows by the failure of a tentative hypothesis to predict phenomena the hypothesis professes to explain; by the patching up of that hypothesis until someone suggests a new hypothesis that more elegantly or simply embodies the troublesome phenomena, and so on ad infinitum. In both, experiment is sometimes possible, sometimes not (witness meteorology). In both, no experiment is ever completely controlled, and experience often offers evidence that is the equivalent of controlled experiment. In both, there is no way to have a self-contained closed system or to avoid interaction between the observer and the observed. The Gödel theorem in mathematics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, the self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecy in the social sciences all exemplify these limitations.
Inflation and Unemployment (1976), 348.
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In short, the greatest contribution to real security that science can make is through the extension of the scientific method to the social sciences and a solution of the problem of complete avoidance of war.
In "Science and Security", Science (25 Jun 1948), 107, 665. Written while Director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards.
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It is interesting to note how many fundamental terms which the social sciences are trying to adopt from physics have as a matter of historical fact originated in the social field. Take, for instance, the notion of cause. The Greek aitia or the Latin causa was originally a purely legal term. It was taken over into physics, developed there, and in the 18th century brought back as a foreign-born kind for the adoration of the social sciences. The same is true of the concept of law of nature. Originally a strict anthropomorphic conception, it was gradually depersonalized or dehumanized in the natural sciences and then taken over by the social sciences in an effort to eliminate final causes or purposes from the study of human affairs. It is therefore not anomalous to find similar transformations in the history of such fundamental concepts of statistics as average and probability. The concept of average was developed in the Rhodian laws as to the distribution of losses in maritime risks. After astronomers began to use it in correcting their observations, it spread to other physical sciences; and the prestige which it thus acquired has given it vogue in the social field. The term probability, as its etymology indicates, originates in practical and legal considerations of probing and proving.
The Statistical View of Nature (1936), 327-8.
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Language is a guide to 'social reality.' Though language is not ordinarily thought of as essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.
'The Status of Linguistics as a Science', Language (1929), 5, 207-14. In David Mandelbaum (ed.), Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality (1949), 162.
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Logic is not concerned with human behavior in the same sense that physiology, psychology, and social sciences are concerned with it. These sciences formulate laws or universal statements which have as their subject matter human activities as processes in time. Logic, on the contrary, is concerned with relations between factual sentences (or thoughts). If logic ever discusses the truth of factual sentences it does so only conditionally, somewhat as follows: if such-and-such a sentence is true, then such-and-such another sentence is true. Logic itself does not decide whether the first sentence is true, but surrenders that question to one or the other of the empirical sciences.
Logic (1937). In The Language of Wisdom and Folly: Background Readings in Semantics (1967), 44.
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Man, the molecule of society, is the subject of social science.
The Unity of Law: As exhibited in the relations of physical, social, mental and moral science (1872), 77.
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Many 'hard' scientists regard the term 'social science' as an oxymoron. Science means hypotheses you can test, and prove or disprove. Social science is little more than observation putting on airs.
'A Cuba Policy That's Stuck On Plan A', opinion column, The Washington Post (17 Apr 2009)
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Mathematical economics is old enough to be respectable, but not all economists respect it. It has powerful supporters and impressive testimonials, yet many capable economists deny that mathematics, except as a shorthand or expository device, can be applied to economic reasoning. There have even been rumors that mathematics is used in economics (and in other social sciences) either for the deliberate purpose of mystification or to confer dignity upon commonplaces as French was once used in diplomatic communications. …. To be sure, mathematics can be extended to any branch of knowledge, including economics, provided the concepts are so clearly defined as to permit accurate symbolic representation. That is only another way of saying that in some branches of discourse it is desirable to know what you are talking about.
In J.R. Newman (ed.), Commentary on Cournot, Jevons and the Mathematics of Money', The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 2, 1200.
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Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.
From the original German “Die Medicin ist eine sociale Wissenschaft, und die Politik ist weiter nichts, als Medicin im Grossen.” In his weekly medical newspaper, 'Der Armenarzt' (Poor Doctor), Die Medizinische Reform, (3 Nov 1848), 3, No. 18, 125. As translated in Henry Ernest Sigerist, Medicine and Human Welfare, (1941) 93.
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Now, it may be stretching an analogy to compare epidemics of cholera—caused by a known agent—with that epidemic of violent crime which is destroying our cities. It is unlikely that our social problems can be traced to a single, clearly defined cause in the sense that a bacterial disease is ‘caused’ by a microbe. But, I daresay, social science is about as advanced in the late twentieth century as bacteriological science was in the mid nineteenth century. Our forerunners knew something about cholera; they sensed that its spread was associated with misdirected sewage, filth, and the influx of alien poor into crowded, urban tenements. And we know something about street crime; nowhere has it been reported that a member of the New York Stock Exchange has robbed ... at the point of a gun. Indeed, I am naively confident that an enlightened social scientist of the next century will be able to point out that we had available to us at least some of the clues to the cause of urban crime.
'Cholera at the Harvey,' Woods Hole Cantata: Essays on Science and Society (1985).
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One of the differences between the natural and the social sciences is that in the natural sciences, each succeeding generation stands on the shoulders of those that have gone before, while in the social sciences, each generation steps in the faces of its predecessors.
Skinner's Theory of Teaching Machines (1959), 167.
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Such instances of the almost infinite unpredictability of man are known to social scientists, but they are no more affected by them than the asylum inmate is by being told that he is not Napoleon.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 156.
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The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.
Power: A New Social Analysis (1938), 10.
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The next decade will perhaps raise us a step above despair to a cleaner, clearer wisdom and biology cannot fail to help in this. As we become increasingly aware of the ethical problems raised by science and technology, the frontiers between the biological and social sciences are clearly of critical importance—in population density and problems of hunger, psychological stress, pollution of the air and water and exhaustion of irreplaceable resources.
As quoted in 'H. Bentley Glass', New York Times (12 Jan 1970), 96.
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The only possible conclusion the social sciences can draw is: some do, some don’t.
Attributed.
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The saying often quoted from Lord Kelvin… that “where you cannot measure your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory,” as applied in mental and social science, is misleading and pernicious. This is another way of saying that these sciences are not science in the sense of physical science and cannot attempt to be such without forfeiting their proper nature and function. Insistence on a concretely quantitative economics means the use of statistics of physical magnitudes, whose economic meaning and significance is uncertain and dubious. (Even wheat is approximately homogeneous only if measured in economic terms.) And a similar statement would even apply more to other social sciences. In this field, the Kelvin dictum very largely means in practice, “if you cannot measure, measure anyhow!”
'What is Truth' in Economics? (1956), 166.
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The social sciences mathematically developed are to be the controlling factors in civilization.
In A Scrap-book of Elementary Mathematics: Notes, Recreations, Essays (1908), 208.
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The social sciences were for all those who had not yet decided what to do with their lives, and for all those whose premature frustrations led them into the sterile alleys of confrontation.
Dear Me
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The theory that gravitational attraction is inversely proportional to the square of the distance leads by remorseless logic to the conclusion that the path of a planet should be an ellipse, … It is this logical thinking that is the real meat of the physical sciences. The social scientist keeps the skin and throws away the meat. … His theorems no more follow from his postulates than the hunches of a horse player follow logically from the latest racing news. The result is guesswork clad in long flowing robes of gobbledygook.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 149-150.
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There are no better terms available to describe the difference between the approach of the natural and the social sciences than to call the former ‘objective’ and the latter ‘subjective.’ ... While for the natural scientist the contrast between objective facts and subjective opinions is a simple one, the distinction cannot as readily be applied to the object of the social sciences. The reason for this is that the object, the ‘facts’ of the social sciences are also opinions—not opinions of the student of the social phenomena, of course, but opinions of those whose actions produce the object of the social scientist.
…...
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This relation logical implication is probably the most rigorous and powerful of all the intellectual enterprises of man. From a properly selected set of the vast number of prepositional functions a set can be selected from which an infinitude of prepositional functions can be implied. In this sense all postulational thinking is mathematics. It can be shown that doctrines in the sciences, natural and social, in history, in jurisprudence and in ethics are constructed on the postulational thinking scheme and to that extent are mathematical. Together the proper enterprise of Science and the enterprise of Mathematics embrace the whole knowledge-seeking activity of mankind, whereby “knowledge” is meant the kind of knowledge that admits of being made articulate in the form of propositions.
In Mathematics as a Culture Clue: And Other Essays (1947), 127.
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Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.
Stanza from the Phi Beta Kappa poem 'Under Which Lyre (A Reactionary Tract for the Times)', which Auden wrote and delivered at the 1946 Victory Commencement of Harvard University (Jun 1946). Quoted in Adam Kirsch, 'A Poet's Warning', Harvard Magazine (Nov-Dec 2007) which gives more background on the poem. Also in Collected Poems of W.H. Auden (1976), 262.
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Unless social sciences can be as creative as natural science, our new tools are not likely to be of much use to us.
Proceedings of the 3rd Congress of Psychiatry, Montreal, 1961, 42
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While the method of the natural sciences is... analytic, the method of the social sciences is better described as compositive or synthetic. It is the so-called wholes, the groups of elements which are structurally connected, which we learn to single out from the totality of observed phenomena... Insofar as we analyze individual thought in the social sciences the purpose is not to explain that thought, but merely to distinguish the possible types of elements with which we shall have to reckon in the construction of different patterns of social relationships. It is a mistake... to believe that their aim is to explain conscious action ... The problems which they try to answer arise only insofar as the conscious action of many men produce undesigned results... If social phenomena showed no order except insofar as they were consciously designed, there would indeed be no room for theoretical sciences of society and there would be, as is often argued, only problems of psychology. It is only insofar as some sort of order arises as a result of individual action but without being designed by any individual that a problem is raised which demands a theoretical explanation... people dominated by the scientistic prejudice are often inclined to deny the existence of any such order... it can be shown briefly and without any technical apparatus how the independent actions of individuals will produce an order which is no part of their intentions... The way in which footpaths are formed in a wild broken country is such an instance. At first everyone will seek for himself what seems to him the best path. But the fact that such a path has been used once is likely to make it easier to traverse and therefore more likely to be used again; and thus gradually more and more clearly defined tracks arise and come to be used to the exclusion of other possible ways. Human movements through the region come to conform to a definite pattern which, although the result of deliberate decision of many people, has yet not be consciously designed by anyone.
…...
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…persons, with big wigs many of them and austere aspect, whom I take to be Professors of the Dismal Science…
Coining “Dismal Science” as a nickname for Political Economy (though used earlier referring to social science in an article, Dec 1849).
'The Present Time', Latter Day Pamphlets, No. 1—Feb 1850, (1850), 43.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
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Bible
Thomas Huxley
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Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
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Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
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- 60 -
Francis Galton
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Martin Fischer
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Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
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James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
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- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
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JJ Thomson
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- 30 -
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Richard Feynman
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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John Watson
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Charles Darwin
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Albert Einstein
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Isaac Newton



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