Reflections on Sociology as a science (*)

John Levi Martin [pictured here], sociologist at the University of Chicago offers his “Reflections on Sociology as a science“:

I am often asked to give my opinion as to whether and how sociology should be a science, provoking the following reflections on science as an enterprise. Basically, I have to say that science has let me down. At first I was very enthusiastic about it – I liked the shiny surfaces and the big dials and that thing that looks like a tee-vee antenna but sends the electric arcs up and helps wake up Frankenstein. So I was willing to overlook science’s mis-steps, like the drum machine, the tamagochi, and the hydrogen bomb….

Some of my colleagues argue that statistics are a part of science for which we should be grateful. But the part of statistics that has served us best is the asterisk, and I find that science’s role here has been distinctly tangential.

The asterisk, we are told, was a printer’s invention to succinctly indicate the year of birth of a personage. The most common explanation is that it represents the “star” (Latin, “asterix”) under which a person was born; an alternate derivation is that it represents the butthole (Latin, “asterix”)… Sociologists adopted it to indicate statistical significance because it is like a little firework of joy: *. Ka-boom! Another publication!

In contrast, the symbol for almost-significant-but-not-quite is the which represents the dagger carried by every Roman senator (also, confusingly, called the “asterix”) that he would stab into his own heart if he turned out to be in a play by Shakespeare that had to come to a quick end because King John had to run to the bathroom… Science may indeed have invented statistical significance, as my colleagues assure me it did, and I do admit that this was a gift to sociology. But then it also invented marginal statistical significance, and that cancels out the other. Add the hydrogen bomb and you see where I am coming from.

(HT Vaughn Tan)

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