The Human Sciences

The Human
Theory of Knowledge
Awesome Quote
 “Maybe
in order to understand mankind
we have to look at the word itself.
MANKIND. Basically, it’s made up of two
separate words – ‘mank’ and ‘ind.’ What
do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and
that’s why so is mankind.” - Jack Handey
 The
attempt to study human behavior in a
systematic way
 Examples: psychology, economics,
anthropology, sociology
In what ways are human
beings different from animals?
 Self-consciousness
 Language
 Reason
 Free
 Creativity
 Soul?
 Observation
 Measurement
 Experiments
 Laws
Human behavior can be directly observed,
but not human thoughts
Human beings can tell others about their
thoughts, but they tend to
overestimate their strengths and underestimate
their weaknesses
withhold unpopular views
be susceptible to loaded questions
encouraging respondents to answer one way
rather than another
The Observer Effect
People also tend to behave differently when
they are being observed (think of so-called
reality TV shows)
To get around this, human scientists attempt
to get those that they study habituated to
themselves, though this runs its own risks,
potentially reducing researcher objectivity
Predictions, too, tend to affect human
 Difficult
to measure thoughts
 Easier to measure behavior
 Measurements do not eliminate the need
to interpret the measurements
 Often very difficult to measure different
things on a common scale
 Often
not possible in the human sciences
The real-world situations they are
attempting to study are often too complex
Experiments would have a distorting effect
on the human behavior under study
Ethical considerations
Experiments, con’td
 Human
scientists can either wait for
nature to provide them with appropriate
experimental conditions OR
 Find ways around these challenges by
devising their own ingenious experiments
Does our belief in free will conflict with the
desire to identify predictable laws of human
Much human behavior is predictable due to
the law of large numbers, in which in a large
population random variations tend to cancel
one another out
Laws in the human sciences are basically
probabilistic in nature (though laws in the
physical sciences probably are, too)
Laws, con’td
Nevertheless, the human sciences do not
have a strong record as far as predictions are
Are human scientists uncovering mere trends,
or actual laws?
Human scientists may also sometimes be
confusing the correlation of two different
variables with causation
Real-world situations are complex; often a
large number of “causes” are combined
Human vs. Physical Sciences
Human sciences generally held in lower esteem
than the physical sciences due to their lack of
explanatory power
Reductionism – the position that things can be
understood by breaking them down into their
constituent parts
Holism – the position that things are better
understood as a whole, since they are greater
than the sum of their individual parts
The physical sciences are basically reductionist,
whereas the human sciences facilitate more
holistic study
It is likely that both positions are needed
German for ‘understanding’
Some human scientists argue that the role of the
human sciences is purely to understand the
meaning of various social practices from the inside
out, rather than to explain and predict
Context is important here, making the discover of
some universal law unfeasible
This approach fails to account for universals such
as gossiping, joking, etc.
Furthermore, people do not always have a full
understanding of their own situation as the many
unintended consequences of our actions attest
Are the human sciences more
prone to bias than the
physical sciences are?
Confirmation bias – only looking for evidence
than confirms our pre-existing prejudices while
ignoring evidence that contradicts them – is
present in both
Good human scientists, like good physical
scientists, actively seek out disconfirming
evidence so as not to succumb to this bias
Human scientists do sometimes run the risk of
“going native” and becoming too
emotionally attached to the people that they
are studying
 van
de Lagemaat, R. (2011). Theory of
Knowledge for the IB Diploma.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University

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