Excursions: Defending the Social Sciences

STEM and Liberal Arts

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and it became a hot button concept in the past decade or so for a variety of reasons. One, international competitiveness. The United States had been falling behind other countries in churning out students prepared for careers in STEM, and it was starting to have implications in our workforce, with a greater immigrant population working in these fields.

Two, with national student debt becoming a crisis, young students were accused of choosing to go to school in the Liberal Arts, entering careers in which they wouldn’t make enough money to pay back their debts. STEM is commonly seen as the solution to this – go into STEM and make a lot of money. Don’t go to school and study English, study Engineering.

People never think of the social sciences when they think of STEM. The Social Sciences include Sociology, Anthropology, Archaeology (Ancient Studies), and Economics. We don’t wear lab coats or use stethoscopes, we often look and dress like everyday people, yet, we’re scientists too.

I spent my undergraduate degree getting a BA in Sociology, and I never took advantage of any STEM scholarships or opportunities until one day my advisor chastised me about it. “The S in STEM stands for Science. You’re a Scientist.

I’ve since become a Political Scientist and am now working on becoming a Linguist, and I remember that moment vividly because nobody mentions the Social Scientists. I had internalized this idea and didn’t value my own studies in the way I uplifted others. I have engineers in my family, and I always felt that I could never have what they had because I chose the “wrong” major. Since that day, I started fighting harder for respect.

A Superiority Complex

Just as Liberal Arts students internalize inferiority, being told countless times that they will never find a job because they chose to study “something they love” over “something useful,” Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics students come to believe that they are better than non-TEM students. There’s a constant defending of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science students after being told that their knowledge is useless.

There is an assumption that they work harder.

Technology and Engineering courses tend to come coupled with Labs, extra courses in which one applies techniques learned in class to projects. Some labs are semester or year(s)-long, and they often lead to research projects that are published in academic journals. These are often the ones you hear about on the news, “Scientists say that broccoli can treat insanity!” Those kinds of studies. Social Scientists don’t have Lab, but they have Methods courses, which include research projects that are to be completed outside of class or through semester or year(s)-long courses as well.

There’s so much reading too, so much reading!

The work is different, doesn’t make it less rigorous or strenuous. Also, comparing workloads is a really subjective and useless point, but I’ll try to parse it out.

Because social theories rely on the behavior and patterns of people, they often take a lot of time and require lots of data. Just as a biologist take a long time studying cancer cells, so too does a pyschologist studying the effects a cancer diagnosis has on a family’s mental health. Finding out the correct method to study a family is forever complicated (should a scientist visit the family ever day and observe them? should they do a survey of families with cancer diagnoses? should they do interviews? how many families? how many is enough to find a pattern? for how long should the study go on?).

The work is different but important, a doctor should be aware of how to treat cancer, but also aware of how the process will affect a person and their family – for example, some families forgo chemotherapy, a crucial step in the cancer treatment process, because of the effect it will have on them and their family. These concepts work together, not separately, and the research methods matter.

There is an assumption that it’s not real science because it doesn’t have any “facts.”

Facts vs Evidence

People often uphold the results from lab coat scientists as absolute fact, but there are no facts, so to speak. There is only evidence. All scientists create theories from different types of evidence, and argue their case. Other scientists then try to replicate the experiments or find supporting evidence to prove a theory as true, but because a theory can be disproven at any time, getting to the point of consensus is difficult. For example, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (by Natural Selection) is not true in the sense that it is correct and other theories are wrong. It is the theory that has the most evidence supporting it as of now, and even then, that can change at any moment! Even Stephen Hawking has been wrong when coming up with theories, wrong enough to lose a $100 bet with another scientist, and that’s another point – scientists disagree all the time with theories. It’s part of the scientific method!

Consensus is not the point of academic scholarship.

Nicole King, PhD., Associate professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies, UMBC

Science is all about pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge, sometimes to make the world a better place (curing diseases! saving animals!), other times it’s to understand our world better (or resurrecting dinosaurs for an amazing theme park). Science takes time, it’s not always sexy!

The Scientific Method and the Social Sciences

The Scientific Method is a series of steps that take a scientist from a question to a bunch of data in which an answer can be discovered or explored in the future. A social scientist’s work is a bit more complex, because it’s not exactly ethical to study humans (not while they’re alive, not while they’re young, not while they’re impaired, not when they’re dead even).

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) February 6, 2016

For example, if I want to know if humans are born with a blank slate, no knowledge or instincts, I can’t take someone’s baby and drop ’em off in the wilderness to see what happens when (if!?) they grow up. So I have to study and come to conclusions in other ways. If I want to study what would happen if Amazon suddenly failed and closed, I would have to go about answering that in other ways, maybe by comparing Amazon to other big companies that went out of business, or using really complicated math to see what that would look like (Economic theory is incredibly complex, and not a single lab coat is involved!).

Social scientists don’t have concrete processes that you can see and touch. There are no beakers or telescopes. There are audio recorders, notebooks, and video cameras, though, and through words and behaviors as evidence are answers found.

The assumption that there is no value in social sciences.

being a social sciences major puts you in a weird position where you’re technically a science major but you’re so ostracized/forgotten about from STEM that you feel more like a humanities major— this cannot continue (@woodswake) April 11, 2019

There is, no doubt, a greater value placed on TEM graduates over all the other sciences. The reasons why is a question that social scientists are well-equipped to answer.

STEM majors are only paid/valued more because their knowledge is more useful to the military industrial complex and other capitalist and/or imperial enterprises. Ceramics majors would earn 6 figures straight out of college too if you could make a drone out of clay—but you can’t.— Kentington Clarke ? (@KentingtonC) December 15, 2018

Some may argue that doctors for example, are more valuable than sociologists, because doctors save lives while sociologists just talk about theories. But it’s bigger than that – sociologists do the work to discover why there may be so few doctors of color, or why doctors overpresecribe certain medicines, or why doctors tend to ignore black pain to deadly results. The social sciences work together with Technology (why is artificial intelligence biased against other races?), Engineering (how to build a better city?), and Mathematics (the Pirahã of Brazil have a language without numbers). Not to mention, the social sciences do a lot. of. statistics.


Don’t forget the S in STEM. Don’t forget the Arts and Humanities either. They’re all important, and learning a little about all of them can make you well rounded to roll anywhere. Don’t let horror stories about not geting a job after college dissuade you from studying anything either – ‘CAUSE NOBODY HAS A JOB! jk, but it’s gonna be hard regardless! So why not study something you love and make it into a career that you’ll be happy with?


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