That Old SF Prejudice

Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today, but since our world is so much more politically sensitive, they also know to avoid saying so directly.

Old school science fiction authors were taught pretty much the same thing and sometimes they say so pretty directly. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke [ACC]:

TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?

ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that. …

To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. …

TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?

ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. …

TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?

ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be. …. I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future. (more)

You see? The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers. But chaos theory says you can’t predict anything about politics or economics because that’s all just random. Sigh.

Of course folks like Doug Englebart were in fact predicting things about the social implications of computers back when Clarke made his famous movie 2001, but Clarke apparently figures that if the physics and sf folks he talked to didn’t know something, no one knew. Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.

Added 10a: Note how it is easy to entice commenters to say they agree with the claim that there is no social science, but it is much harder to get a prominent physics or sf blogger to say so in a post. Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

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  • IMASBA

    “Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today”

    I wasn’t taught that, then again, I studied physics a long, long time after the 1970s.

    “Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.”

    Not necessarily, you don’t have to think social sciences are completely useless to believe they cannot predict the future. In fact I don’t think any respectable sociologist would say he he/she can predict what future society will be like to a degree that’s more precise than what laymen can predict. Even the most arrogant economist has to admit he/she cannot predict whether there will be an economic crisis in 2080. To compare, a physicist knows all the equations governing a water molecule’s motion in the ocean, but cannot predict where that molecule will be in 6 months.

    The author of this blog didn’t even see the Arab Spring coming a year in advance, while history is a chain of such spontaneous events with huge impact. We really don’t know if future people will be comfortable with losing their privacy (more than we already have) and we really don’t know how they and their governments will react to things like true AI, bionic/genetic enhancements, income inequality, etc… and then it’s perfectly possible extraterrestrials will land on Earth tomorrow.

    • Nytrydr

      Look, I think the other greatest SF writer in the world had it right in some senses (OK, probably more than some, but I’ll digress). Remember way back in the foundation series, Lije Bailey goes off world and immediately asks to see a Socialolgist. THere isn’t one, but there’s an amateur who’s making his own science as he goes along, but Lije, a simple policeman no less, is accustomed to sociaologists having verifyable scientifically deduced and statistically validated emprical evidence about why folk do stuff. Psychology also in Lije’s Caves of Steel home town is indeed considered a very “hard” science with massive mathematical constructions explaing pretty well everything, Daneel eventually helps Harry Seldon come up with Psychohistory a mthematical model for predicting the future in large groups very precisely. I think we are that the point that the off-world amateur was at now, these sciences still seem “soft” to physicists etc, but due to the increasing pressure to be properly scientific they are evolving, and none of them have fundamentally undone their own existance in the process, the rise of psychology , anthopology etc in the world of business proves their Darwinian survival value, and I think in time (though I may seem cynical) people will prove a lot easier to predict and explain than all that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff the physics and quantum physics folk are trying to figure out now. Cos people are essentially quite simple and unchaging once you understand their origins and thus their logic chains, but I feel a digression in the wings and I’m hungry.. Plus I think it’s time to re-read caves of steel. Where did I put that…..

      • oldoddjobs

        wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff is way easier to explain than humans. that’s why social science is so full of bs.

  • Robert Koslover

    I think that Asimov’s “psychohistory” idea may be relevant to this discussion. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_%28fictional%29

    • Jason Young

      Asimov said he thinks it’d be a good idea if humans had some sort of science that studied aggregate human behavior, implying that he was was either unaware of macroeconomics, sociology, marketing science, et al., or skeptical of their value way back in 1987. Either way, I think his answer supports Robin’s argument.

      • IMASBA

        “implying that he was was either unaware of macroeconomics, sociology, marketing science,”

        Or implying that he thought at least some of those did not meet his criteria (and he had good reasons to think like that).

      • ByTimeAsunder

        Freud → Venusian Level Greenhouse Effect

        That escalated quickly.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        ‪#‎ThingsIMustNotWrite‬:

        A version of the _Foundation_ trilogy where Hari Seldon is just a conventional macroeconomist (well, market monetarist) and the Empire is collapsing due to deflation and software patents, with John Galt as the evil Austrian economist threatening the nascent Foundation from within.

      • oldoddjobs

        I always just presumed Seldon was Marx.

  • Vangel

    I don’t think that your statement that teachers were unified in their dislike for social sciences was correct. In fact, many of my old teachers had far too much respect and did not appreciate just how little useful knowledge there was in the social sciences. We now know that most of the stuff that we have been taught in psychology, nutrition, and economics was absolute drivel and unsupported by either sound theory and logic or empirical evidence. At times the social sciences are far worse than useless; they are outright dangerous and are the justification behind diversion of scarce resources from their best uses. For a perfect example of such recent damage just look to the ‘climate science’ narratives and the alternative energy industry.

    • IMASBA

      Uhm, climate science is a cooperation between meteorologists, physicists, chemists, geologists and paleontologists. It’s very much an exact science, not a social science.

      • Vangel

        It is not an exact science. When almost every paper put out by the dendro community has been discredited by a retired mining engineer working alone it becomes very obvious that climate science is nothing like the hard sciences. If you look at the Briffa 2013 paper you find the extent of the problem; the new reconstructions are nearly identical to what Steve MacIntyre predicted four years ago. He was the same guy who found the math problems that torpedoed MBH98/MBH99, discovered Steig’s Harry/Gill data problem, discovered the use of upside-down sediment core samples in a number of samples, and got Marcott to withdraw his flawed paper.

        Now I do not expect most dendro people to be as good at math and logic as MacIntyre but I do expect them to be familiar with the tools that they are using. The fact that they are entirely clueless shows how little science can be found in ‘climate science.’ Of course you could say that they know the math but if that is the case there enters into our picture outright fraud.

        I suggest that you pay attention to the upcoming sensitivity debate. Most of the new papers have come up with figures that are much lower than what the IPCC had been using. If the IPCC ignores the new numbers it has a credibility problem. If it deals with them most of the report, which deals with ‘projections’ based on that sensitivity number, will have to be rewritten. I am betting that the IPCC tries to ignore the literature and goes with the old numbers. But either way it has painted itself in a corner and it is now obvious that the scientific method has been abandoned in favour of advocacy. From where I stand the ‘climate science’ people are no better than some of the ‘pharma science’ people who have fudged some of their results or ignored studies that disproved their thesis.

      • IMASBA

        “When almost every paper put out by the dendro community has been discredited by a retired mining engineer working alone it becomes”

        Except that hasn’t happened. There are a lot of crackpot engineers out there though: whether it’s a 9/11 trutherism, free energy quackery, creationism or homeopathy, there’s always some engineers that support it. There’s a reason engineers and medical doctors are not considered scientists, they’ve not been trained in critical thinking and statistics like scientists have.

        Meanwhile weather record after weather record gets established, in my home country and many others.

      • Vangel

        But it has happened. The Wegman and NAS reviews concluded that MBH98/MBH99 used bad math and lousy methodology to come up with conclusions that were not supported by the data that was being used. While Dr. North and the NAS panel claimed that the bad methodology still may have come up with the correct conclusion because other papers had come up with similar conclusions the panel never bothered to do due dilligence and review those papers as they did MBH98/MBH99. Most of the papers they listed in their report used trees that the NRC claimed were inappropriate because they reacted to CO2 fertilization as well as temperature and the community could not disentangle the two effects. What was worse was the fact that many of the papers included upside-down proxies, cherry picked small subsamples from a much lager data set, and used improper techniques to support a conclusion that went away once the errors were corrected. I found it fascinating that Briffa 2013 managed to support both sides of the argument. While the paper still has the 20th century warmer than any period since the LIA much of the warming came before the 1950 period that the IPCC says was when human effects became material.

      • IMASBA

        This will be my last post on the subject but I have to say this: analysis of the stuff Wegman wrote showed he made bigger mistakes than the climate scientists he was investigating. In fact it turned out the errors Wegman made were crucial to his conclusion while errors made by the cliamte scientists accounted for only a 1% difference in their results. The NAS (like many of its foreign counterparts) has, on multiple occasions, acknowledged cliamte change is real and mostly caused by human acitivity.

        Honestly, I think that if it wasn’t for possible CO2 taxes and the like climate science would not be opposed by many, after all, the science behind it is much less complex than that behind general relativity or quantum mechanics and nobody is protesting against those theories. So-called skeptics are strawmanning to find explanations other than the blatantly obvious culprit (greenhouse gases) because they WANT it to be something else and that’s religion, not science.

      • Vangel

        There were no mistakes made about the mathematics of MBH98/MBH99. North certainly did not dispute anything that Wegman said about the faulty methodology in his congressional testimony.

        Since MBH were discredited there have been many papers that have shown that the MWP were not materially lower than the temperature today and that the HO, MW, and RW periods were all warmer or as warm as today. Almost all the predictions made by the AGW community have been discredited. Hurricane activity is at a historical low level. Global ice levels have not moved much higher or lower than the satellite era average. Polar bear populations have grown, not shrunk. Biodiversity and biomass are increasing around the world. The climate refugees never appeared. Neither did the predicted heat accumulation in the oceans or the mid-troposphere hot spot. Add to that the community scrambling to explain why its models have failed and why we have seen a 18 year plateau even as CO2 emissions are at record levels and there is not much credibility left.

      • oldoddjobs

        So, all scientists are “trained in critical thinking”? Ye Gods!

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It is not an exact science.

        Doesn’t make it a “social science.”

      • Vangel

        But it does mean that it isn’t real science. Just like ‘social science’ is not real science.

      • Jason Young

        The post is about physical sciences and social sciences, not exact sciences and inexact sciences. The distinctions overlap but they are fundamentally different.

      • Vangel

        Science means using the scientific method. Climate ‘science’ and social ‘sciences’ fail on that account.

  • roystgnr

    “Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today” – occasionally by the social scientists themselves, even.

    Making the rounds last week: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0070048

    In related news, people with a history of using parachutes are more likely to die in skydiving accidents even when controlling for present altitude, people with a history of chemotherapy treatment are more likely to die of new cancer outbreaks even when controlling for current state of health, and scientists with a history of me mocking them on the internet are more likely to produce subsequent studies which fail to distinguish between obvious alternative hypotheses even when controlling for pass-rate of peer review.

    (Lest I get too cocky: it should be unsurprising that famous sociological study interpretations that *don’t* conflict with my priors are *also* prone to grievous error: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027712001849 )

    Physical scientists may not be significantly smarter than social scientists; it’s just easy to come up with smarter results when you can rely more on controlled experiments and less on easily confounded correlations.

  • arch1

    To a certain extent I think this article presents a false dichotomy, since predictions concerning our tech future involve social science as well as ‘hard’ science. The ‘hard’ sciences can help us understand what is physically possible and engineering difficulty, but in order to predict whether a given technology will be adopted and (if adopted) its extremely complex subsequent interactions with society and with other technologies, some level of predictive social science is needed.

  • JW Ogden

    Economic predictions are like weather/climate predictions but the latter are more likely to be considered science.
    Economist can predict with a large degree of surety that if North Korea liberalizes, the standard of living of North Koreans will rise in the long run much faster than had it not liberalized.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Like Russia prospered after it “liberalized”?

      • consider

        According to Penn Tables 7.3,
        Russia’s GDP/capita ppp in 2005 dollars:
        1980 ?
        1990 $12,400
        2000 $8,500
        2010 $15,100

      • Dmitry Egorov

        Russia today has 100 billionairs and 300k millionairs with a population of 120m. 60% of people are earning the same or less than they were in 1980.

        You can imagine how this average dollars are spread out. The reason is severe corruption on every goverment level.

        I live in Russia so it’s a sore subject for me…

    • IMASBA

      “Economist can predict with a large degree of surety that if North Korea liberalizes, the standard of living of North Koreans will rise in the long run much faster than had it not liberalized.”

      They can “predict” that only with all (other) things being equal (liberalization might lead to a war that wipes out the North Koreans if you allow more than one variable to change). But this demonstrates the limits of the social sciences: an economics PHD can’t really improve a lot on the guesses of a well informed lay man (just like a physics PHD can’t really improve a lot on the guess of a lay man when it comes to predicting where a single molecule in the ocean will be 6 months from now), let alone predict what future society will be like. There are just too many crossroads in the future where cultural attitudes and random events will decide the outcome.

      • IMASBA

        Of course the difference is the physicist will admit he can’t predict the path of a water molecule for months while economists will swear their model accurately predicts what the world will be like 100 years from now and that all the other economists who use different models are wrong.

    • VV

      Economist can predict with a large degree of surety that if North Korea
      liberalizes, the standard of living of North Koreans will rise in the
      long run much faster than had it not liberalized.

      North Korea has an exceptionally underperforming government, and its standard of living are very low with respect to countries with comparable geography, natural resources and history (notably, South Korea).

      So yes, economists can predict that if the government of North Korea stopped being what it is and become more like the government of South Korea or Japan, or even China, standards of living would improve. But so can I. That’s a trivial prediction that doesn’t require any economic theory, just direct empirical observation.

  • Sigivald

    The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will
    actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science
    fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate
    scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers

    That’s not how I read Clarke there.

    I read him as saying Fantasy isn’t Science Fiction because it’s not fiction based on science, not because it “gets the future wrong” – after all, Clarke says that SF almost always gets the future wrong too.

    (The enjoyment and value is in the speculation, not in the getting it right…)

    Science Fiction is a subset of “speculative fiction”. Possibly best defined operationally as “change one or more technological givens and see how that changes everything/something” – and thus we can infer the difference between science fiction proper, and “space opera”, which is just the same stories humans have always had, set in The Future And Stuff.

    If we assumed today’s – or the past’s – technology (science) with a different social arrangement and were examining the ramifications of that, we’d still be doing speculative fiction, but it wouldn’t be science fiction (and probably would not be fantasy, either).

    Probably a good definition of fantasy in this context is that it’s “speculative fiction based on a different fundamental reality” – such as assuming magic – and not in Clarke’s famous “sufficiently advanced technology” sense – or an alternate past with mythological creatures that are real (elves, dragons), or some equivalent.

    (The distinction is not one I’ve ever seen made, but one could make an SF vs. Space Opera distinction between the various camps of fantasy; ones that are truly speculative and ones that simply use a mythological/magical setting to tell Standard Narratives.)

  • http://priorprobability.com/ F.E. Guerra-Pujol (Enrique)

    Going back to Hanson’s first point about disdain for the social sciences, I thought it was obvious that the social sciences (including economics) are thoroughly value-laden and unrigorous to the extent most claims made in the social sciences are untestable (or only partially testable under artificial lab conditions) … Science fiction at least has some entertainment value and doesn’t pretend to be testable or rigorous

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Today’s
    science fiction authors also know better than to say such things
    directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is
    predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science
    exists and social science does not.

    That may be true, but it makes you an exception to the rule, since the part about the em-world engineers seem to find most questionable is that mind-transfer technology is imminent.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

    They don’t say it publicly because it violates a norm against deliberate attacks on the status of (some) other groups. This also partly explains why they think this way: self-serving bias. But why should physicists and engineers feel threatened by social scientists: status anxiety typically motivates such attacks.

    Physical science has higher status than social science because of the success of physics and, particularly, the demonstrated power over nature. But the physical sciences don’t hold all the status cards; the social sciences and philosophy have the status advantage of being far-mode, a characteristic that is then attacked by physical scientists. The dominant party in the status war still resents the strengths of its rivals, a common way for a subculture to negate the status claims of other subcultures or the dominant culture being to invert status values.

  • Jason Young

    Alternatively, we hold predictions about our social future to a higher standard than predictions about our tech future. A tech futurist can provide a low-detail account of future tech and still be judged prescient, but a social futurist must tell us what clothes we’ll be wearing and how we’ll impress each other before his prediction even merits a response. It isn’t that we don’t believe the social sciences exist, it’s that they aren’t specific enough about our social future to be interesting.

    I consider this more likely for two reasons: a) introspecting, my imagination asks far more specific questions about distant people than about distant gadgets, and; b) i find it implausible that a well-educated person today could sincerely believe the social sciences do not contain ”knowledge” and cannot make general forecasts, i.e., they aren’t sciences. I don’t believe sci-fi authors or physical scientists are that obtuse or dismissive.