Human sciences as probabilistic explanation

The thrust of this article is very simple: the explanations we find in the human sciences are nothing like the claims of causal certainty we frequently find in the natural sciences.

‘Sue hit Joe,’ the story goes, ‘because he insulted her.’

If the audience to this sentence knows both Sue and Joe, that may be the end of it, since their personalities are presumed to be understood. Yet greater explanation may be desirable, especially if there are aspects to the personalities of Sue or Joe of which those who know them are unaware.

Let’s enrich our narrative, with different scenarios.

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her an ugly bitch.’ (Two variations in background: the general consensus is that Sue’s not attractive, or the general consensus is that she is.)

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a feminist dyke’ (including evident variations in background).

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a cockteaser.’ Let’s pause here, because the background variations to this rely less on general consensus or social fact concerning the two, and more on their internal motivations and personal boundaries. Joe might have said what he did because he’s contemptuous of Sue; or because he’s sexually frustrated in his longings for her. But Sue may be lashing out because she has unadmitted desires for Joe. She may also have personal gestures that are not flirtational, but may be seen as such by others, and strong personal boundaries; and she is motivated in lashing out to protect those boundaries.

But let’s go back to the ‘feminist dyke’ example. Joe’s insult hinges on the pejorative nature of the word ‘dyke;’ but there are social and personal facts the insult references: either Sue is a feminist or she is not; either she is a lesbian, or she is not. That seems cut and dried. But now the context demands to be opened up. In what situation did Joe insult Sue? Are they students at the prom? Are they in a barroom after a few drinks? Are they at a feminist political rally? Are they at a gay-lesbian rights rally? If so, are there camera’s recording them (enlarging their audience and providing them with a public stage)? Now they need not be presumed to know each other. They might be engaged in differing political signifying practices – Sue isn’t simply lashing out, she is making a statement.

A court would determine whether Joe’s provocative speech warranted physical assault in response. However, possible explanations of the event are now beginning to multiply, possibly beyond our powers to merge them into a single narrative. Was Joe drunk when he decided to attend a rally concerning a cause he was hostile to? Was Sue? did either of them recently break up with a loved one? Had either suffered a death in the family; the loss of a job? What if one or both of them happen to be in the military?

Remember: if we’re talking about a political rally, especially one attended by the media, we’re talking about a possibly national social context, getting interpreted by millions of people with differing political, social, cultural motivations. (Perhaps even economic: Newspaper editor: ‘Did Joe bleed?’ Reporter: ‘No.’ Editor: ‘Then it goes to page 2.’)

But let’s stretch out the time-line of our narrative and see how the explanations fares. One act does not follow immediately after another. that gives the participants time to think over their responses; time enough to doubt the impulse of those responses:

‘Joe said something about feminist lesbians; later, Sue hit him.’

Now we have the narrative, but it’s explanatory force is considerably weakened – it all depends on how we interpret ‘later.’ If ‘moment later,’ then Sue’s response is almost immediate; if four day’s later, then Sue has probably been simmering in her anger and might be expected to have reconsidered her response; if four days later, perhaps Sue’s thinking has become pathological, since she hasn’t used any of that time to reconsider different possible responses.

But let’s go back to the original narrative, and change its presuppositions:

‘Sue hit Joe, because she was drunk.’ Now we no longer bother with Joe’s behavior, but decide to explain Sue’s in the light of her possible drinking habits (and if the court sends her to rehab, that’s exactly the explanation the therapist will be concerned with).

I start here because it’s important to recognize that the way a social science discusses any behavior has to do with the focus of attention the science presumes. Psychologists researching alcoholic behaviors, or sociologists studying the increasing likelihood of violence from people who are inebriated, aren’t really going to be that interested in any presumed provocation for the behavior – which is not to say that they will be uninterested: for instance assume, for the moment, that Sue and Joe are related, in a family with a history of alcoholism and/or abuse. Then the provocation will take on increased importance – especially when brought before the legal system.

We should consider, then, that different social sciences having differently focused interests will develop different explanations for the same behavior. A researcher in political science may note whether at a rally, either Joe or Sue had been drinking, but only as an aside. The study will concern the volatile nature of personal confrontations over political issues, and the implications of the media broadcast of these conflicts for the coming election. A sociologist might be more concerned with the ways in which Sue and Joe identify with their different social groups, and why these groups come into conflict. And so on.

This ‘same behavior, different explanations’ phenomenon we find in the social sciences actually enriches the value these sciences have for us. Human behavior is extraordinarily complex, and understanding it cannot be reduced to ‘unified theory of everything,’ without doing injustice to the individuals and groups involved.

But therein lies the weakness of the social sciences, because, as sciences, they need to come up with generalized explanations, even within their specialized focus. Usually this takes the form of statistical analysis and probability predictions derived from these: ‘60% of women named Sue will behave violently, when a man named Joe utters words perceived as insulting, under conditions X, Y, Z.’ The problem with this is, what about the other 40% of women named Sue? Are they now to be held under suspicion, that meetings with any Joe might lead to violence? (The danger of any human science, as predictive of behavior – injustice to the individual. We are not all of a stamp. Otherwise there would have been no change throughout history.)

Unlike the natural sciences – where, at least at macro-levels, event B follows event A with complete regularity, as long as all subjects remain of the exact same class under exactly the same conditions – the social sciences can, at best, give us ‘rules of thumb.’ But these have importance, insofar as such ‘rules of thumb’ inform the intuitions that guide our judgments, and can provide us with a picture of ourselves -almost as broad, as deep, as variable and complex, as we humans actually are.

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One thought on “Human sciences as probabilistic explanation

  1. http://physics.aps.org/articles/v9/12
    “All processes inside a living cell are controlled by networks of biomolecules that chemically interact with each other. These interactions are fundamentally probabilistic in nature, and indeed, it is now widely recognized that biochemical networks can be highly stochastic. In addition to being noisy, these systems are often sparsely characterized and highly nonlinear. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make any general strong statement on their behavior.”

    That’s to say, everything is complicated and noisy (but things get done anyway).

    Like

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