John Levi Martin
Reflections on Sociology as a science.
I am often asked to give my opinion as to whether and how sociology should be a science, provoking the following reflections on science as an enterprise. Basically, I have to say that science has let me down. At first I was very enthusiastic about it – I liked the shiny surfaces and the big dials and that thing that looks like a tee-vee antenna but sends the electric arcs up and helps wake up Frankenstein. So I was willing to overlook science’s mis-steps, like the drum machine, the tamagochi, and the hydrogen bomb.
But when I think, what has science done for sociology, I must become more critical. Science has simply not delivered. Some of my colleagues argue that statistics are a part of science for which we should be grateful. But the part of statistics that has served us best is the asterisk, and I find that science’s role here has been distinctly tangential. The asterisk, we are told, was a printer’s invention to succinctly indicate the year of birth of a personage. The most common explanation is that it represents the “star” (Latin, “asterix”) under which a person was born; an alternate derivation is that it represents the butthole (Latin, “asterix”) that the little fuck was crapped out of. Sociologists adopted it to indicate statistical significance because it is like a little firework of joy: *. Ka-boom! Another publication! In contrast, the symbol for almost-significant-but-not-quite is the † which represents the dagger carried by every Roman senator (also, confusingly, called the “asterix”) that he would stab into his own heart if he turned out to be in a play by Shakespeare that had to come to a quick end because King John had to run to the bathroom (John was well known to suffer from a form of chronic diarrhea known to the Elizabethan doctors as— you guessed it—“ye asterix,” a shortened form of "ye olde asse terrors"). Science may indeed have invented statistical significance, as my colleagues assure me it did, and I do admit that this was a gift to sociology. But then it also invented marginal statistical significance, and that cancels out the other. Add the hydrogen bomb and you see where I am coming from.
And anyway, the asterisk seems equally attributable to printing, not science, and just make a list with two columns. It looks like this: Science—atom bomb of 1945. Printing—Gutenberg bible of 1452. Science—hydrogen bomb of 1952. Printing—First hardcore pornography of 1453. Science—Neutron bomb of 1981. Printing—What you are reading right now. Science—statistics in the form of math which no one understands. Printing—the asterisk: *! Poochhhhh! Obviously 4 – 0. And by the way, did I mention the hydrogen bomb that will destroy all life on the planet? Thank you violin-playing, gentle, mustached, cultured, sad-European-eyed SCIENCE! Printing sure didn’t do that.
And sociology is, technically, a subset of printing—it’s a way of arranging movable type on a page. It is very much like the famous story of the 1000 monkeys in a room with typewriters, except with substantially more monkeys. And more asterisks.
And compare the future given to us by science (also known as “reality,” or “2008” or “this sucks”) to that given by printing (also known as “science fiction”). Let’s make our columns again: Printing—robot servants do everything for us. Science—…science doesn’t even try. It’s slinking off with its tail between its legs. It hasn’t even bothered to put a robot servant in every working man’s house. It was left to the children of America to painstakingly put one (small) cardboard box on top of another larger one, cut out eye-holes and draw magic marker tape-storage units on the front and get inside these pathetic costumes—it was left to these imperiled innocents to be the robot servants that we so desperately needed and so richly deserved. Children of American I salute you!