Sociology professors like to ask incoming students about the difference between sociology and journalism. While the students squirm, the professor leads them to the right answer. This is the notion that sociology is a science as opposed to the untethered musings of the feckless journalists in the next classroom over. But how scientific is sociology? Or is it the inquisitors who should squirm?
Putting aside one level of philosophical niceties, see Science and Pseudoscience, we can recognize that all scientific laws are not equally reliable. For the sake of discussion, Fr. Time proposes we consider a continuum of sciences. We might think of physics, for example, as close to the ideal of a pure science at one end of the continuum with pseudosciences, say water divination, at the other.
For a working definition, we can say that a pure science is able to provide causal laws of the form “if x, then y, always.” By this definition, sociology would not qualify as a pure science. The best it can do today is to say “if x, then y, often, and only in a very limited context.” To get back to the professor’s designation of sociology as a science, we can now see that the answer is not so cut and dried. Sociology resides somewhere in the middle ground of our continuum.
However, we should not be too hard on sociologists. They farm on rocky soil. Social systems are open-ended chaotic systems – like weather patterns, viruses, or the spread of weeds – whose behavior is innately difficult to predict with any reliability. For example, weather forecasters can only reliably predict general weather patterns in a limited area over a relatively short term.
Given the nature of the systems they study, sociologists are not able to conduct the type of controlled experiments associated with the scientific method. First, in an open system it is impossible to gather large numbers of people with rigidly defined borders. And sociologists can not replicate an earlier experiment while keeping all factors equal but one. For example, they can’t ask a group of subjects to change their religious preferences for the next study.
On the other hand, sociology is clearly not a pseudoscience. Its findings offer a level of causal reliability and explanation not achieved by the pseudosciences. And we can learn much from its analytical statistics and qualitative descriptions of the state of a specific populace, its beliefs, its predispositions, and its relationship with other variables.
Residing somewhere in the middle ground of the scientific continuum, sociology is indeed different from journalism.