Astronomy is an example of natural science: a science which draws direct, logical conclusions from data. In the natural sciences, the world is narrowed into a closed box, intended to be uninfluenced by people and the social aspects of the world. This perspective can be useful and helps us draw testable conclusions about phenomena in the world and the Universe.
Social science is, as the name suggests, concerned with people, the interactions between them, and the societies they form. This makes it quite a broad field, since most of what people have built to date has been as a result of human collaboration. Natural science itself is a knowledge acquisition system made by people coming together to agree on certain processes, methods, and ideals. This links the two sciences quite fundamentally, but people often think that they have nothing to do with each other, and natural and social scientists often condemn each others’ approaches.
I had the privilege of attending two workshops which radically shifted my attitude towards the social sciences. The aim of the workshops was to open up a channel of communication between the disciplines by exploring how they make sense of the world. The workshops used the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a common reference point to understand and dissect our approaches. I’ve been trained as a natural scientist, but I strongly believe that astronomy and all the natural sciences have a lot to learn from social science. Here are a few reasons that we should talk to each other:
The methods of astronomy should be open to scrutiny
Like other natural sciences, astronomy involves being sceptical at every stage of its scientific process, from the data gathering process to drawing conclusions. Doubting existing theories and exploring their failings has led to better explanations for what we observe. With gravity, for instance, Newton’s theories held up for centuries before Einstein came in and questioned some of their fundamental assumptions. This gave us General Relativity, the most reliable theory of gravity to date. This scepticism, however, doesn’t extend to the scientific method itself. The techniques that astronomy uses to eliminate bias should be constantly questioned and doubted. Social scientists have the perspective and breadth to interrogate how astronomy produces knowledge. Discussing and contesting their insights could lead astronomers to a better way of doing science.
We need to understand how astronomy fits in with the rest of the world
Doing science has far-reaching impacts on society, not just science. An illustrative example of this is building the SKA telescopes to do radio astronomy. From an astronomer’s point of view, the telescopes will produce data, which they will analyse and use to test their different theories and models. For a natural scientist, this would seem like the end of it.
Social scientists, however, understand that this is just a tiny part of a much larger sphere of influence of the SKA. Building the dishes directly impacts inhabitants of the Karoo desert and their economic, social, and cultural activities. Their construction is influenced by policy, will influence policy, and also determine the direction of skill development that will be encouraged over the next many years. The technological innovations that stem from the SKA project can also feed into other industries, affecting how they operate. All these external effects can be positive or negative, but it is important to acknowledge that they definitely exist.
We are all looking for answers
Natural and social sciences are both searching for answers to satisfy their curiosity about the world. Astronomers and natural scientists strive to do this as objectively as possible, aiming to eliminate human bias. Social scientists recognise that the human element of science can never be fully absent, and so they attempt to include the human, subjective perspective in their quest for answers. Understanding each other’s methods helps to put our own in perspective. It’s important to note that natural science is just one way to make sense of the world, useful in some contexts but may be limited in some ways.
The author would like to thank organisers and participants of the following workshops for discussions that inspired this article:
Samyukta has a BSc. Hons from the University of Cape Town in Applied Mathematics, with a focus on cosmology. She has also been trained in radio astronomy through the DARA programme. Samyukta is an amateur astronomer and has worked in astronomy outreach, development, science communication, and design. She writes about amateur astronomy at The Bast.