Marijke Keet



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Master of Arts, What's in a Name?

1. Introduction

Being in the possession of a postgraduate degree Master of Science (Microbiology), currently studying towards a Bachelor of Science (IT & Computing), whilst carrying out the requirements for the Master of Arts in Peace & Development Studies does provide me with material comparing the two types of education/research. Sure, there are prejudices from 'both sides' on what the other faculty is all about, but does one of them constitute a branch of scientific knowledge, as opposed to 'the other' being pseudo-scientific? And, being warned by lecturers and fellow students to be nice to lecturers and professors because it will affect your grade1, does that mean that so-called academic achievement in the social sciences / arts / humanities depends more on niceties than on 'real scientific contributions'?
In this essay I will discuss the guidelines of what is generally accepted to fit the description of being 'scientific knowledge', address characteristics of pseudo-science and compare this with the contents of the course Research Methodologies' social research sessions (like descriptive methodology, feminist research and ethnomethodology).

2. What constitutes science?

"Let's face it: science is hard." - J. Shallit

The main philosophers defining modern science are Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and the notions of logical positivism, falsifiability and the discourse of scientific revolutions. Logical positivism makes the distinction between science and pseudo-science: it's about the 'observable', interested in what is as opposed to what can/should be (the requirement of inductive confirmation (Koningsveld, 1993:41)). On the other hand, Popper devised the scientific model into the concept of creating predictions, rather than merely explaining, i.e. the pre-empirical stage (the hunch) - hypothesis formulation - testing - adjusting hypothesis if the results require you to do so - etc. Schematically:

Popper's theory is a form of critical rationalism, or trail-and-error, though he himself refers to it as "conjecture and refutation" (Koningsveld, 1993:47). Important aspects of this approach are objectivity (see also Table 1), and eliminating background noise, which means that a certain, pre-defined, set of variables are considered and the potential other interfering variables are deemed unimportant (as having no, or a negligible, effect) in the domain of discourse.

Subject Object
Culture Nature
Mind/spirit Body
Feelings Thing
Consciousness -
Human Animal
Reason Instinct
Table 1. Object versus Subject.

In this context, some of Popper's predecessors deserve attention.
"Descartes' project of a universal science … leaving outside itself the great fields of history, poetry and divinity" (Collingwood, 1960: 119)
not that those fields worthless, but
"he regards them as fields in which his proposed method, just because it is in the narrow sense a scientific method, will not apply." (Collingwood, 1960: 119)
Kant adopted Descartes' view, with the adjustment that he placed metaphysics outside the scientific method as well. This brings about the following view of science, according to Kant:
"...the proper object of scientific knowledge is not God or mind or things in themselves, but nature; the proper method of scientific knowledge is a combination of sensation with understanding; and since nature is that which we know by this method, it follows that nature is mere phenomenon, a world of things as they appear to us, scientifically knowable because their ways of appearing are perfectly regular and predictable, but existing only in so far as we take up the point of view from which things have that appearance." (emphasis in original text) (Collingwood, 1960: 119)
There are a few obstacles in Kant's philosophical ponderings that go beyond the scope of this essay topic2, subsequent philosophers of nature developed ideas further, leading to:
"Natural science ... consists of facts and theories. A scientific fact is an event in the world of nature. A scientific theory is an hypothesis about that event, which further events verify or disprove." (emphasis added) (Collingwood, 1960:176)
What is important to realise, is that Popper's ideas are within this framework of the modern view of nature.

Although Popper's approach looks appealing, literally dumping a scientific discovery, or even a paradigm as a whole, at the moment you've found data that are not consistent with the prevailing ideas, is not something that happens in practice. Sheldrake (1996: 232-266) lists reported variances in the speed of light, gravitation and other fundamental constants that are the basis of the SI (metric) system, but does that overturn the paradigms in physics? No. Then, what brings about a scientific revolution, as Kuhn sees it? Not the single anomaly in observable, testable data. Koningsveld (1993:52) states
"Normal science [a rational activity] ... is the research that occurs within the groundwork of a paradigm, by a group of people that supports or believes in it."
Then, Kuhn argues that a scientific revolution does not occur as a result of rational deliberations, but due to social, social-psychological and psychological factors. So we have this contradicting situation: Popper claiming 'ideal scientific knowledge gathering' by collecting data empirically and testing against a formulated hypothesis and near-instant adjustment if data doesn't fit, and Kuhn asserting that those anomalies don't matter sec, but only 'at the right time at the right place'. My impression is, that these views do coexist in reality in scientific research for the following reasons. Having read, and still reading, scientific journals like Nature, Science and professional literature (Biochemistry, Annals of Microbiology etc.), new ideas based on relatively objective data is published, re-tested by other research groups at different universities using the exact same methodology (i.e. verifying its repeatability) as well as using different test methods and/or variables, and only when the results are consistently in favour of the new idea, a (gradual) paradigm shift occurs. Thus based on testing and re-testing over a period of time. An example is the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. His ideas weren't new, but a culmination of not only his research results, but also of researchers like Wallace and others in the preceding 15 years, and research carried out afterwards. A more contemporary case might be, HIV/AIDS research3, where too much money and honours are at stake to overhaul the hypothesis (adjustments are being made though). The latter reeking towards the social embeddedness of science, but science nevertheless.

Summarizing science: it is some observable (either directly or via inference), testable, and re-testable fact (thus independent of the researcher), which is held against a formulated hypothesis and will either confirm of refute the statement, where, when sufficient data confirming or opposing the prevailing paradigm has been observed, documented and peer-reviewed-published, hypothesis and paradigms will be formed or adjusted at some stage.

3. Arts and Humanities as pseudo-science?

"The methods of science have been enormously successful wherever they have been tried. Let us then apply them to human affairs." - B. F. Skinner

First, as a foreigner resorting to the dictionary, arts is translated as arts in terms of proficiency and skills, and the 'Master of Arts' area in the Anglo-Saxon system of education as covering literature, social science and philosophy. I still wonder, why is there a Master of Arts, where the Arts/Humanities/etc departments consider themselves within the realms of science, thus logically, it should offer a Master of Science; that is, if it is science as they/we claim it to be, right? Or a Master of Social Science (MSocSc) perhaps?
Interesting to note here, is that although the general term social science refers to 'the scientific study of human behaviour', there is
"resistance most closely associated with some recent perspectives in qualitative research" (Punch, 1998:13)
therefore the phrase 'social research' is coined as being more appropriate. This leaves me wondering if 'social science researchers' acknowledge themselves that at least part of their field does not bring forth scientific knowledge, or if it is merely giving in to the stronger voice of the researchers in the life sciences (and engineering) fields.
Second, having outlined characteristics of the traditional idea of what constitutes science in modern times (Chapter 2), what is defined as pseudo-science? Shermer4 suggested 10 questions to ask when encountering any claim, which I relate to social science/research:
  1. How reliable is the source of the claim? Are the facts, figures and citations distorted? An example: I'm paraphrasing Punch (1998:225), who mentions Heath and Luff's research, who in turn refer to a 1990 study on ethnomethodology which had a bibliography of 1400 citations to articles in five different languages. How reliable is all this? Which study is being referred to? Is there really somebody out there who is going to verify, or has verified, the whole trail of references back to the source, including the 1400 in the original text (are there really 1400 references)? Moreover, Punch even adds the value judgment to the huge amount of references he did not see for himself (if he did, he would referenced to that original research), it being
    "an indication of its [ethnomethodology] importance" (Punch, 1998:225).
  2. Does the source often make similar claims? Going beyond the data (whatever type they may be), does the researcher provide informed guesstimates or creative speculations? Descriptive and interpretative social research easily can suffer form this problem. One can argue it is turned around and made a virtue, thinking of feminist research5 for example, which is accepted as long as you state your methodology at the beginning of the report. If you allow one social group to have their 'new way of researching human behaviour', other groups are entitled to that as well. Ad absurdum, doesn't everybody construct his or her own reality, therefore everybody's interpretation, or creative speculation, could/would be considered science? Or, with a negative connotation, is it all pseudo-science?
  3. Have the claims been verified by another source?
  4. How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works?
  5. Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought? On other words: the confirmation bias, alike what I'm doing under points 1 and 2 above by providing only negative examples, thereby suggesting social research might not live up to scrutiny (whereas my only intention was to provide content to illustrate this point).
  6. Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant's conclusion or to a different one? Research carried by using different methods and by different people, yet all converging to the same conclusions obviously is more convincing than a single isolated claim. The myriad of methodologies in social research thus seems to be highly favourable: the more ways discovered leading to Rome makes the existence of Rome more probable. However, following the analogy, what if the road can only be used once? I'm referring to the non-repeatability and research bias of social research, mainly the qualitative approaches although quantitative approaches can be subject to that as well (when the results induce a change in behaviour of the subjects).
  7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favour of others that lead to the desired conclusion?
  8. Is the claimant providing an explanation for the observed phenomena or merely denying the existing explanation?
  9. If the claimant proffers a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation did?
  10. Do the claimant's personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa? Research bias is supposed to be filtered out during the peer-review system, but, referring to feminist research and ethnomethodology for example, it essentially incorporates the bias into the research method, even in the title of the analysis6.

Having outlined what comprises science in chapter 2, gone into some detail as to what can be considered scientific knowledge as opposed to pseudo-science, then, how does this relate to the arts and humanities? I have pointed towards some criticism of social research methods and practices that easily can slip into the realms of pseudo-science, but these are all related to methods, leaving open the possibility that not all methods of social research may be confined to being mere pseudo-science, or even, that new methods may be devised to meet the narrowly defined scientific criterion better. Before continuing, I'd like to provide an example: extrasensory perception (ESP), which is claimed to exist only outside a laboratory setting, but cannot stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny in any test environment:
"... it simply goes away when one tries to observe it scientifically - it is contrary to the nature of a scientific worldview." (emphasis added) (Hofstadter, 2000:694)7
Thus arguing that we, humans, do not have the proper methods at hand; not the belief system of ESP-supporters is wrong, but the current belief system of science itself. But what does it really indicate? That we, humans, have not the capability of testing it at this time, but that maybe, when there would be another type of worldview, it might be possible to prove the existence of ESP. How can we compare worldviews? We cannot, because nobody stands above all worldviews (that is, if there is a plural...), there is no meta-entity; well, to be on the safe side, none that/who we can query and receive answers from. Moreover, purely hypothetically, if there were one or more meta-entities, how would she/he/it observe it? By establishing the fact or not, i.e. using the activity that is commonly referred to as 'science'. This is not merely circular reasoning, but an inherent problem in studying human behaviour: we cannot jump out of our own box of thought. Whereas studying (the rest of) nature, humans are outside the type of objects they are observing scientifically; for example studying plants, we are not plants, hence placing humans on the meta-level from a plant's point of perspective. Therefore, philosophically speaking, this [the impossibility of moving up onto our own meta-level] leads to the notion of arts/humanities as not producing scientific knowledge.

Sure, humans created the idea of science, therefore we have the capability of adapting, broadening, the meaning of 'scientific knowledge', which could lead to the knock-on effect of eliminating the difficulties as mentioned under points 2, 6 and 10 of Shermer's checklist, hence including social research of human behaviour8. In the so-called life sciences (or natural sciences) the results are reproducible and gender / color / citizenship do not have an influence on observing and analyzing e.g. the growth of microorganisms. A quick counterargument of creating your own reality is the particle-wave duality, but exactly because of the scientific process the apparent contradiction in the results came to light and got resolved.

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with trying to study our own behaviour, within the stated restriction as well as being fully aware which pair of lenses are used to devise the findings; it certainly produces some highly interesting material, though they're just not scientific facts in the strict sense of the current definition9.

4. Conclusions

The main question that needed to be addressed was "What makes a branch of knowledge scientific, as opposed to pseudo-scientific?" To answer this, I outlined what constitutes science, as well as the characteristics of pseudo-science and held these notions against some social research methodologies and practices, which did not live up to scrutiny of the narrow definition of 'science'. More fundamentally, social research defined as 'the study of human behaviour', can be considered as pseudo-science from the viewpoint of philosophy of science, as human beings cannot elevate themselves to their own meta-level (if we could, it wouldn't be a meta-level), thereby making it intrinsically impossible for social research to produce scientific knowledge, unless we change the narrow definition of what constitutes science. BR>



1. This was mentioned on numerous occasions during the course Origins, development and Resolution of Conflict and observed first-hand with the write-up of the presentation for the course Feminist Perspectives. I am fully aware I am walking on thin ice discussing the topic "What makes a branch of knowledge scientific, as opposed to pseudo-scientific?", but I have the 'advantage' of being specialised in another field, hence not dependent on this MA degree in procuring a job after the end of the course year.
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2. Hegel continued and developed the distinction between natural science and philosophy further, leading towards the modern view of nature (which introduced life, besides matter and mind). Consult Collingwood (1960) for an elaborate overview.
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3. Referring to the debate if HIV is the main cause of AIDS. See for more details The Virus Within by Regush (2001), or a skeptic discussion by Harris (1995) online.
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4. Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, which also contains an extract from Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer and an interesting article on 'leftist science' by Shallit (1994), a.o.t.. Shermer's 10 questions were published in American Scientist of November and December 2001. Examples to illustrate his checklist are mine.
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5. Common features of feminist methodology are
"the rejection of positivism, the pervasive influence of gender relations, the value-ladenness of science, the adoption of a liberation methodology and the pursuit of non-hierarchical relationships." (Punch, 1998:142)
where an illustrative example is given by Mernissi (1994) in her book Achter de sluier, approaching the position of women in Islam form a feminist perspective and re-interpreting Qur'anic verses, working towards an entirely different scenario for women in Islam.
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6. See El-Haggan's (1998) critical assessment of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew from an Islamic perspective.
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7. Hofstadter's whole book is highly recommendable; he goes into great depth with regards to the wide range of practical and philosophical aspects concerning "meta".
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8. The five 'basic social sciences' are psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science (Punch, 1998:13).
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9. The statement looks rather discomforting when written down. However, on a second look, it isn't. For example research into e.g. posttraumatic stress syndrome as a certain disturbed state of mind, having a description of the symptoms of the definition, one can devise questions to filter out people form a test group using questionnaires, perform statistics on it, all sounds if it is reasonably scientific. But, when is some behaviour normal grieving, and not posttraumatic stress syndrome? Who defines those criteria and what is normal? That depends on who's answering these questions (research bias). It didn't use to exist, are 'we' turning into weak creatures, or is the definition subject to change, or are people, informed about the existence of the disease, changing their behaviours so as to fit a description (based originally on empirical data; which makes testing impossible to repeat because the environment changed as a result from the findings of previous research).
There is an option for a discussion distinguishing between 'good' science, 'bad' science, pseudo-science (that is, if a distinction can be made between the latter two) and how to broaden the definition of science, but this would require another essay (or even a whole book to address this aspect).
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Collingwood, R.G. (1960). The idea of nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 183p.

Darwin, C. (1859). The origin of species. London: Penguin Books (reprint 1985). 477 p.

El-Haggan, R. (1998). Obedience in The Taming of the Shrew: An Islamic Perspective. Date accessed: 8-12-2002.

Harris, S.B. The AIDS heresies - a case study in skepticism taken too far. Skeptic vol. 3, no. 2, 1995. pp. 42-58. online at: . Date accessed: 16-12-2002.

Hofstadter, D.R. (2000). Gödel, Escher, Bach - an Eternal Golden Braid. London: Penguin Books, 20th Anniversary ed. 777p.

Koningsveld, H. (1993). De kritiek van Popper op het standaardbeeld. In: Inleiding Wetenschapsfilosofie. Luyten, J and Hoefnagel, B (eds.), Syllabus department of Toegepaste Filosofie, Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands. pp. 41-50.

Koningsveld, H. (1993). De paradigmatheorie van Thomas Kuhn. In: Inleiding Wetenschapsfilosofie. Luyten, J and Hoefnagel, B (eds.), Syllabus department of Toegepaste Filosofie, Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands. pp. 51-66.

Mernissi, F. (1994). Achter de sluier - De islam en de strijd der seksen. Breda: De Geus and Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar; translated from French, original title: Sexe idéologie islam. 236p.

Punch, K. F. (1998). Introduction to Social Research - quantitative and qualitative approaches. London: Sage Publications. 319p.

Regush, N. (2001). The Virus Within - A coming epidemic. London: Vision Paperbacks. 232p.

Shallit, J. Book Review: Leftist Science & Skeptical Rhetoric. Skeptic vol. 3, no. 1, 1994. pp. 98-100. Date accessed: 16-12-2002.

Shermer, M. Baloney detection. Scientific American, November 2001. p 25.

Shermer, M. More baloney detection. Scientific American, December 2001. p 23.

Sheldrake, R. (1996). Zeven experimenten die de wereld kunnen veranderen. Utrecht: Rainbow Pocketboeken, Kosmos-Z&K Uitgevers; translated from English, original title: Seven experiments that could change the world. 357p.

This is an essay written as part of the course PS5131 - Research Methodologies, Department of Government & Society, University of Limerick, Ireland. Because a word limit was set, certain aspects did not get the attention they deserved; I intend to write more at a later date.


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This page was last updated in December 2002