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The Synthesis Void in the Social Sciences

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At MARRI we hope to work with an emerging network of academics on “The Synthesis Project” to help ordinary folk in this time of need when cultures are being eroded.

Cultures expressed the centuries-accumulated wisdom of peoples and resulted in a taboo-enforced norms of “This is the way we live as a people.”  It was a powerful shaper of thought and behavior, operating for the good of families and the community, passed on by generations and resulting in functional stability, and a flourishing life.

But, with the modern erosion of culture, a vacuum now exists and needs to be filled by a deliberate education[1] that will be accepted by thoughtful people as trustworthy.  The social sciences can help fill that vacuum. But they confront a problem within their own ranks.

The material and social sciences differ in in how they handle new findings. In the material sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience to name but a few) synthesis is automatic once the new findings are replicated and significant enough. In the social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics to name the big ones) synthesis is not automatic particularly in  “hot topic” areas.  There synthesis is often avoided sometimes to a degree that that amounts to suppression.

This difference between the material and social sciences can be seen very clearly in college textbooks.  Compare a biology textbook of 1990, even of 2010 with a 2020 textbook.  Though there is large continuity they are different and each decade the difference mounts as later editions integrate (synthesize) new discoveries.

Not so in the social sciences. Much is left out especially in the study of marriage, family, religious practice, and sexual behavior. Textbooks differ on the content covered depending on the ideology of the authors, not depending on the robustly confirmed advances in the field.

Why does this difference — automatic synthesis in the material sciences but an avoidance in the social sciences — take place?

  • The material benefits of the material science are sufficient motive for integrating the new analytic discoveries into what was already known, because the benefits are often enormous and can be seen in engineering, transportation, energy production, communications, increased abundance in food s and enormous advances in health.
  • The social sciences work in the relational, behavioral dimensions of man to discover how he “works” — what helps or hinders in living a happy life. Like the material sciences, its findings are adding insights continuously on what works to make man thrive or wilt. These findings eventually lead to “man thrives when he acts this way, or wilts when he acts this other way”.  In other words, social sciences lead to (unstated) “oughts”.[2]  They have moral implications with attendant demands on humankind.  Such demands are not always welcome, for instance in the areas of sexuality and marriage. A professor who has just divorced her husband will be less inclined to review the effects of divorce on children — understandable from a human point of view, but unforgivable from a science point of view.  Thus, the social sciences run up against an emotional-moral barrier within the scientists themselves.  Though tasked with seeking and teaching truth on how man thrives they are reluctant if they want to practice otherwise.  Their students also may not want to hear the evidence about the effects. Fallen human nature often resists the true or the good.  Of those who practice science we expect better.
  • “Value neutrality” was taken to be core to the social sciences when I was an undergraduate. Today I would resist that mightily on science grounds.  I expect every scientist to hold to two values and raise them to virtues in practice: love of truth and the courage to say the truth.  Courageously truthful is the hallmark of the true scientist (assuming he is skilled in his science).

There is a vast array of topics in the social sciences waiting to be synthesized, the many pockets where synthesis has not happened. Thereafter the wider synthesis of cross-linking beckons. For instance a synthesis the impact of religious practice on sexual enjoyment, plus the synthesis of sexual abstinence and religious practice finally infused with the findings of  the impact of sexual abstinence before marriage will yield a very interesting picture of the lifetime — long term — enjoyment of the sexual within marriage.  Synthesizing each area by itself leads to interesting conclusions but meta-synthesizing all three areas can lead to conclusions that are unwelcome to some — because of the “ought” behind the very notion of science, the pursuit of truth.

Old cultures knew a lot about sexuality in its many dimensions.  They had integrated or synthesized the insights over time. It embodied and enforced the insights.

Such insights are no longer culturally transmitted and need deliberate presentation to cause people to develop their moral (their behavioral) compass.  Here robust, replicated social science helps.  Some will reject the invitation to accept truths; some may look but waver, and some will “align with the data” — adopt “the oughts” of the data.  Thus, the social sciences, robustly pursued have an important role in man’s search for happiness, for understanding himself.

For the good of the child, the focus of so much social science,

Pat Fagan

[1] Much cultural education was subconscious or preconscious.  Therein lies its power to shape.

[2] As do the material sciences — their “oughts” directed at how we ought to handle matter if we want to harness its potential for good and goods.

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