On the science vs. social science debate

There has been a long-standing discussion on the nature of economics as a subject. Various erudite scholars and experts have held different views regarding whether economics is a science or social science. To develop a viewpoint on this matter it is important to understand the disciplines of science and social science inside out.

Science is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:

“knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation”

While social science is:

“a particular area of study that relates to human behavior and society”

Economics as an area of study is concerned with the study of the optimal use of limited resources which have alternative uses to satisfy our unlimited wants. It is thus directly concerned with understanding the human behaviour, for, in order to understand what the human wants are, it is imperative for us to learn about human behaviour and how it is related to society in general. Further, the employment of resources will also depend on the appreciation and prioritisation of the human requirements. Thus, the definition of economics conclusively puts it in the scope of social science and there is no debating this fact.

Applying the definition of science directly to what economics studies makes us realise that we can’t claim it to be a branch of science. Economics doesn’t study the natural world as it is. It studies a more modified or in some sense applied version of the natural world. The world that arises out of human interaction and the consequent use of natural resources to ensure the smooth functioning of the elements of the natural world.

When we come to think of an actual branch of science such as physics or chemistry, we can picture a scientist or an experimenter performing experiments in laboratories, unearthing the principles behind some natural phenomenon like relativity or a new sub-atomic particle. Also, there is a very high degree of exactness in the scientific calculations. Economists, on the other hand, don’t perform such experiments and their laws are more of approximations which consider a lot of influencing factors to be constant. A valid explanation for this assumption is the high degree of convolution involved in gathering economic data. It is also a very knotty job to exactly determine the way in which the various eclectic factors influence an economic phenomenon. Thus, economics loses out on being more of scientific discipline because of the lack of hands-on experimentation and the ever so important ceteris paribus condition used to derive all its major laws. (Ceteris paribus means if all other relevant things, factors, or elements remain unaltered. It is an assumption that is associated with the various laws such as the law of demand or the law of supply).

The reasoning applied so far offers sufficient proof that economics should essentially be considered to be belonging to the purview of social science. But, the question that remains unanswered is why is it even remotely considered to be a branch of science? Well, there is a method to science and economists tend to follow the same methodology while attempting to explain economic happenings. The methodology involves designing a hypothesis, using historical and economic data to verify the same and finally coming up with a conclusion. The hypothesis testing also involves the design of mathematical models which are an apt representation of the phenomena under study. With the advent and development of econometrics, the scientific approach has become even more astute and methodical.

It is for the reader to form his or her own viewpoint regarding this matter as this is a debate that has been going on for quite some time now and will continue to be a major point of disagreement in the near future as well. But, whatever be the nature of economics, it is a fascinating subject that has answers to the reasons behind a lot of everyday events. The focus should be on appreciating it for what it is.


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