Major Movements in Psychology

Psychology As a Science

How do the methods of the social sciences differ from those of the hard sciences?

In general, the role of math is different in the social sciences than in the hard sciences. In the hard sciences, especially physics, mathematics is used to identify fixed laws of nature. Once a mathematical equation is identified to explain the behavior of an object, the equation can be used to predict the behavior of the object with extraordinary precision. Consider the equations that send rockets into space. Thus, mathematics in the hard sciences is predictive and deterministic.

All of the object’s behavior can be predicted by the equation. Aspects of modern physics, such as quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, do contradict this certainty, however, although only in the realm of the extremely small (e.g. the sub-atomic particles) or the extremely large. In psychology, the topics of study are so complex that it is not possible to predict all human behavior with mathematical equations. Whether that will ever be possible is debatable, but it certainly has not been done yet. What does that mean for the role of mathematics in psychological science? In psychology, mathematics is probabilistic. We estimate the likelihood that certain statements are true or not. Further, these estimates are based on the aggregate, on the behavior of groups. Therefore, while we may be able to say a lot about the likely behavior of groups, we are unable to predict the behavior of any given individual with certainty. For example, based on samples showing increased beer drinking among male college students compared to females, we can predict that, in general, male college students will drink more beer than females but we cannot predict the behavior of any given college student.


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