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Home / Academics / Economics / Social Sciences and objectivity – A complicated relationship

Social Sciences and objectivity – A complicated relationship

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Many social scientists present their work as being objective, neutral, free of any political point of view. The results of their research are presented accordingly and hence, they gain a special power of persuasion. There are hardly any days in any country, may it be democratic, authoritarian or technocratic, where there is not a politician stepping in front of a camera, waving with a study of a group of economists, sociologists or historians, trying to be more convincing.

This article aims to show that there cannot and should not be a form of politically neutral social sciences and that every step of pursuing research in any of these academic fields is somehow influenced by political standpoints. However, this is not fatal, as neutrality is not a prerequisite for social scientists – in contrast to honesty, transparency and a balanced presentation of rivalling point of views which are essential.

Why is it so important that everyone of us looses the perception of scientists as people who should aim to achieve, and sometimes reach, becoming a form of objective authority, superior to politics and society? – Because it leads us to a form of trust that they (including the author of this article) do not deserve.

Consider economic institutes for example. In Germany there are dozens of economic institutes, two of which I myself have had a closer look on. The first is the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES), closely linked to the centre-left Social Democratic Party. Its publications, which occasionally are of exceptional quality indeed, usually do not get much resonance in the public. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) on the other hand does not have any party affiliation or political point of view and is specifically devoted to “creating solutions to urgent problems”[1]. According to rankings, the IfW influences policy making to a big extent. [2] Now, many people would argue that if both of these institutes were to publish a study about the German economy, the one of the “independent” IfW could be more trusted.

If the FES chooses to conduct research about, let’s say, the effect of income inequality on economic growth, you would not be surprised – and you would know what to expect. The FES is interested in reducing inequality and even before reading one sentence, you could be 99 % sure that it found a considerable, and of course negative, effect of inequality on growth.

If you would now turn towards the IfW paper you might read that inequality is actually a good thing, at least in the short run, because it accumulates wealth in the hands of those who invest a high percentage of their income and consume comparably little. For the IfW these neoliberal point of views are by now largely over, but there are many other institutes where such a hardcore capitalist view would be presented as “scientific”, hence, “neutral”. To put it in a nutshell, the identification of a topic of research, a “problem”, is a politically motivated decision in itself.

A quick word to German historians who have engaged with this problem of scientific neutrality for over a century: In the 19th century, most of its research can be considered as, honestly, useless crap. Ranke, being a deeply religious and nationalist person himself, belonged to the avant-garde by reflecting on neutrality and demanded that history should restrict itself to showing “what actually happened”.[3] It was only many decades later that a guy called Popper had the groundbreaking idea that science is not about proving a fact or a causality, but about falsifiability.

In summary, I recommend the following:
If a scientist depicts himself as politically neutral and presents a study proving a scientific result -> do not trust him.
If a scientist transparently presents his motivation, his assumptions and his method and proves a scientific result -> remain sincerely critical
If a scientist transparently presents his motivation, his assumptions and his method and rules out every conceivable scientific result except one -> you can temporarily work with that one result which was not proven, but which resisted falsification.

PS: I apologize for sticking to examples from my own country. But again, this proves (or does not falsify) my point: Every person, scientist or not, has his own constructed reality and frame of reference.

[1] http://www.ifw-kiel.de/about-us/ifwinfo_e/ifwinfostart_e/view?set_language=en
[2] E.g. top German economic institute for international trade, according to http://ideas.repec.org/top/top.int.html
[3] “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”

Gunnar Take

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