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Social Sciences (part7)

A recent study establishing that African American males have much higher death rates than other American males elicited, when it was published, the predictable responses. Here, once again, was evidence of the racist nature of American society. Further analysis, however, revealed that greater differences existed between different groups of black males than between black and white males and that poor white males in the deep South had roughly the same death rates as blacks. The conclusion was that "persistent aspects of the lifestyle of the south" affected black American males whose families came north but continued to eat a heart-clogging diet of greasy pork and fried chicken just like their redneck neighbors. The first responses fit a preconception but turned out to be prejudging the case.

We see the same problem in the debate over global warming. Scientific statistics certainly seem to show a persistent warming of the climate over the past thirty years. And scientists have determined that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as that from pollution, might cause the climate to get warmer. But the cause-and-effect relationship has never been proved, only assumed and generally by those who are looking for arguments to cut down on pollution anyway. Historians identify what they call a "little ice age" running roughly from 1400 to 1850 during which the planet was a lot cooler than it had been in the year 1000 when Greenland was green. We may in fact be going through some larger climate changes that have little if anything to do with our pollution. Not everything is our fault. We may not be that powerful.

Scientists like to pretend they are objective, but in fact they are no more objective than anyone else. The famous "search for truth" is more often than not a search for evidence to back up a favorite thesis. But even so, we have to confront a report on oil pollution paid for by Exxon by analyzing its evidence and logic Right and wrong, true and false, are subjective even in the sciences. The scholar who brings the most evidence and the best logic to the debate wins regardless of motivation or who paid her bills. We must be aware of bias, but we still must live in the world "as if."

The job, then, of a social science paper is to push back the chain of cause and effect in order to discover all the factors that manipulate us. No professor expects his or her students to trace everything back to some First Cause, but it is important to realize that we are all caught in the many chains of cause and effect and to try our best to reveal them. Only mystics and romantics believe we can ever break out of these chains; social scientists are practical sorts who accept the world as given and try to understand it so that we can make the best of our cages.

Those who think they know the name of that First Cause are dogmatists who have left the objective skepticism of science for some political or religious cause. The many schools of analysis can be thought of as the products of differing answers to this question. Marxists believe that competition for material goods is at the core of it all. Feminists see the First Cause in gender relationships. Freudians are convinced that sex is behind our every move. Astrologers blame it on the movements of the planets. "Men either worship the true God or some idol," Jonathan Edwards explained. "Something will have the heart of man, and that which a man gives his heart to may be called his God."

 
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