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Human Sciences

Differences between human and natural sciences

The key difference between human and natural sciences is one of consciousness.


Whereas natural scientists study objects and organisms that are unaware of their own existence, human scientists are concerned with organisms that are. Every decision we make, we do so consciously, with purpose. Without knowing that purpose – and how can one ever know that fully about another human being – it is very hard to explain that decision meaningfully.
In natural science, this idea of purpose and motive is simply not there, so it is much easier to come up with a set of rules to explain the behaviour of physical objects or animals. Whereas compiling a set of laws to account for the behaviour of humans is, for the most part, virtually impossible. We all act in a different way, for different reasons.

Take the simple scenario proposed by the British philosopher AJ Ayer of a man with a glass of wine.


The man picks up the wine glass, and drinks from it.


Why does he do so?  There are many possible answers, including:

  1. An expression of politeness

  2. A show of honour or loyalty

  3. A religious observation

  4. A gesture of despair

  5. An act of pleasure

  6. A taste test

  7. An attempt to seduce

  8. An attempt to corrupt

  9. An attempt to summon up courage

  10. The act of someone with a serious medical condition

Our man could be in a happy mood when he drinks, he could have just been dumped by his girlfriend, he could simply be thirsty.


But there are many variables here, and it is impossible to say at first sight what is involved in this very simple action. As Ayer puts it : perhaps the action can be explained only in terms of someone’s intention, or by reference to social norms and conventions, or some combination of the two…

Take, in contrast, the scenario of an antelope at a river.  


The antelope bends her neck, and drinks from the river.


Why does she do so? The answer is:

  1. She is thirsty

In other words, there is no conscious decision to be made by the animal; she is simply responding to a physiological need.
Some have said that the only way we can truly turn human sciences into ‘proper’ sciences is by stripping away all the social meaning involved in people’s actions. Only then can we arrive at a point when we can apply rules to human behaviour. But how can we do this?


Take the following scenarios, that have been stripped of all social meaning. Do they really constitute an accurate description of what is going on?

  1. Lots of men or women on a rectangular patch of grass marked with lines of paint are throwing an elliptical ovoid object to each other, running as fast as they can in different directions, bashing into each other, and kicking the object up into the air towards different ends of the grass. Around them, thousands of other people in rows are making loud screechy noises and banging their hands together.

  2. A large crowd of people in a room, dressed in long flowing robes and flat boards of fabric on their heads, are lining up to climb some steps onto a big wooden box. When they do so, a person dressed similarly hands them pieces of paper, and the other people bang their hands together simultaneously.  They then descend the stairs ready for the next person.

  3. Groups of scented painted people are gathered in a large room where loud sounds is coming out of large black boxes and to which people nod their heads and move their feet. At intervals, one person from each group gets up and goes to a long table where he exchanges small pieces of paper for glasses full of different coloured liquids. These liquids seem to control the painted people who make more and more screechy noises, with more of them joining the small crowd moving their feet.

  4. People are sitting in a large room arranged on a rising slope towards the back of the room. The people sit in silence for hours in the dark as moving images move across a wall. Occasionally, and without referring to each other, they jump, make screechy noises, leak water from their faces and put their  heads in their hands.

  5. Young adults sit in a rectangular room exchanging information about themselves.  Sometimes they look at small boxes.  Sometimes they sit with their heads in their hands.  They listen to an older adult rant on and on.  They try to listen but sometimes it is difficult to understand what the old one is saying because they speak funnily and also because what they are saying doesn't make sense or is difficult to grasp.  Then all of a sudden, the younger ones are expected to complete tasks about what was being said.  Sometimes, they understand what to do...sometimes they do not.....but the tasks always seem to be about them, which is weird when they don't know what it is about themselves that they have to communicate.

Are we looking at a true account of what is going on here? Or do we need more reference to the meaning of each scenario? Do we need to use different words, and have an understanding of the implicit meaning of these words.

Give this poem from 1979 a go if that was too easy...what is the Martian revealing about our world?  Fill in the blanks...

What is being described...and how accurately does this reflect what we see these things as ourselves??  Why / why not??


A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979) - Craig Raine

.............are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand. when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper. when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker. a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But ............. is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake the ............ up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt from ................
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves – ...............
in colour, with their eyelids shut.



So in your opinion does any of this stripping away of social meaning actually help us understand ourselves better.......or does it actually detract from those studies...?  How do we weigh up the ability to isolate patterns and acquire reliable data versus the insights that social meaning analysis can give us about ourselves?...

Another difference between the two disciplines of course is that in the natural sciences, the observer is not the same as what is being observed. The human sciences, of course, involve people observing people. The significance of this is massive, and its implications will be discussed as we look further into the subject......

.....but before we look at exactly how we manage to observe ourselves, one last activity - what do you think William Golding is trying to represent here in this excerpt from his second novel 'The Inheritors' - who is being depicted and when?  Why would this imagined scenario maybe give us more insight into what we are and what we do, and what would be the limitations?

(1. A rugby match; 2. A degree ceremony; 3. People in a bar; 4. Cinema); 5. TOK lesson; 


The Inheritors (1959) - William Golding


Approaches and methods in the human sciences

What is so scientific about the human sciences? (

​Although there are obvious overlaps between the human and the natural sciences, some special challenges arise in applying the scientific method to the human sciences. The scientific method requires observation, from which we may form a hypothesis. This hypothesis is tested and falsified. The latter often happens through experimentation, although this is not always possible (yet). The observation stage can be quite tricky in the human sciences. Arguably, we can only ever observe the outward manifestations of human behaviour; we have no real objective and direct access to inner thoughts and feelings as such. This makes the situation different from a natural scientist who observes, let's say, the properties of a leaf. MRI's may well give additional information about which parts of the brain react given certain situations or stimuli, but we can never truly get inside a person's mind to figure out what drives his or her behaviour. The very act of observing may also affect the observed. True, this may also be the case in the natural sciences (e.g. the temperature of the thermometer could affect the temperature of an observed liquid), but the effects are sometimes more profound in the human sciences. When people know they are being observed, they may behave differently (think of the behaviour of participants in reality TV shows, for example). Some complex things, such as consciousness or happiness, are also very hard to measure. You may have come across a global happiness index, where countries are ranked according to happiness. But have you ever wondered how we measure happiness? Measuring happiness is very different from how we measure things such as the temperature of a liquid in the natural sciences. 

When human scientists have gathered data through observation, they may be able to form a hypothesis, which will then need to be tested. It is not always easy to test the validity of this hypothesis, and both natural as well as human scientists come across obstacles in this area. Nevertheless, assessing the validity of a hypothesis is more difficult within the human sciences. Not all knowledge about human behaviour can be gathered through experimentation within a laboratory style setting (where we can control variables). This is not always desirable nor possible (some behaviours can only be observed in their natural setting). We can never repeat human experiments in exactly the same conditions, if experimentation is at all possible. After all, either the participants will be different, or the same participants will have changed (and have previous knowledge of the experiment). Human scientists may look at the world around them to check if what was predicted by the hypothesis is reflected in reality. However, the very act of predicting (e.g. in economics) may affect the prediction.

In this sense human scientists find it quite difficult to claim with certainty that something is a scientific fact. This is why your psychology teacher may confidently talk about correlation, but less so about causation. Scientific theories (whether natural or human) only survive as long as they stand the test of time. Laws are a little different. In the natural sciences, laws generally speaking do not change over time and they are fairly good at predicting what will happen. Nevertheless, laws in human sciences are not always good at predicting what will happen. In this sense "human sciences usually uncover trends rather than laws" (Lagemaat, 2015).

But does all this mean that knowledge from the human sciences is "of a lesser quality"? Not necessarily. The subject matter of both areas of knowledge is different, so it is not desirable to approach the study of all human behaviour through the exact same methodology as a natural scientist's. Sometimes a natural scientist can offer complementary knowledge that can help explain human behaviour and offer (partial) treatment for things such as depression. However, this may not be possible in other disciplines like economics. The human sciences can explain many things that cannot be explained through other areas of knowledge. In this sense, it would be foolish to reduce the human sciences to only what can be confirmed by the natural sciences merely because we uncomfortable with the apparent lack of certainty.

Using the video below, create a set of notes outlining how the human sciences attempts to explain our world around us and why these methods by necessity are different from the scientific methods used in Natural Sciences...








Naturalist and Interpretivist approaches to the Human Sciences

Actually, assuming that we can be objective – ie, make value-free judgements whereby both the subjects of an investigation and the investigators do not bring into the study their own personalities, beliefs and feelings – is something that not everyone agrees with. It is true that many scholars think that you can apply the methods of natural science to the study of social behaviour, and treat human subjects just as you do animals or objects in the natural world. They are known as ‘naturalists’. The other school of thought is made up by those who are known as ‘interpretivists’, and not only do they believe that value-free judgements in the human sciences are impossible to make, they are also undesirable. So not only do we have a difference in method, we have a difference in aim, which makes it very hard to find consensus in the human sciences.


Quantitative and qualitative data

The difference in method and aim is also reflected in the kind of information both these schools of thought focus on when they are researching a particular issue. Those who believe in a naturalist approach to human sciences usually prefer to base their findings on quantitative data, whereas interpretivists pay more attention to qualitative findings.


Quantitative data is gathered by such activities as surveys, questionnaires, study of statistics, and other generally mathematically-measurable values. The strength of this data is that it provides ‘hard’ knowledge about a thing, and cannot easily be refuted. The number of unemployed people in a country, for example, is fact that is difficult to contradict, although the difficulty may arise in language – and what we consider unemployed (is it those out of work, those who claim jobless welfare benefit, those who choose not to work, or one or more of these categories).


Qualitative data seeks to gather more personal information, and provides evidence that is often descriptive rather than numerically-based and instantly measurable. Examples include case studies of people and places, anthropological accounts, and witness testimonies. If the number of unemployed is a quantitative piece of evidence, the opinions of the unemployed would be a qualitative piece of evidence.














Durkheim and Weber

Two famous figures (arguably the most famous figures) in human sciences who personified these different approaches were

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920).

Durkheim typified the naturalist approach to human science, and sought to understand questions using purely objective evidence. There is no doubt that he was at least partly successful in doing this, as his ‘scientific’ approach resulted in sociology gaining a great deal of respectability during his lifetime (he is sometimes referred to as the founding fathers of the subject).


In his book called Rules on the Sociological Method, he outlined the method that sociologists should take. He said that observation should be as impartial and impersonal as possible, and should base social facts (a term he invented) on other proven social facts – so rely on coherence rather than correspondence. These social facts existed, according to Durkheim, independently of the individuals of society – in other words, they weren’t caused by individuals, but by society as a whole.


Social facts are more powerful than individual actions and decisions, and therefore control people living in a society – which is why we can study them objectively (they are not subject to the whims and personalities of individual human beings).


To put this in context, we can look at Durkheim’s study of suicide. We would probably understand suicide on an individual level. A person is desperately unhappy, or not in full conscious control of their mind, and so they kill themselves. But for Durkheim, suicide was a social phenomenon, and existed independently of the lives of individuals. In other words, even after a person has killed themselves, suicide still exists within society. This is an objective social fact. To investigate suicide, Durkheim examined the death certificates of the victims, focusing on:

  1. When the suicide occurred (ie day of the week, month, season, etc.)

  2. The age of the victim

  3. Their gender

  4. Their marital status

  5. The number of children they had

  6. Their religious affiliations

  7. The place where the suicide happened

  8. The type of work done by the victim

He did not interview anyone involved to find out how the suicide victims felt before they took their own lives, and he didn’t enquire into the reason for the suicide. He kept his research purely quantitative and objective. One of his findings – which hadn’t been properly understood before – was that the experience of moving from a rural to an urban environment can have a radical effect on people’s minds. The sense of leaving a tightly integrated community for a more anonymous one leads to a feeling of anomie, which in turn causes confusion and psychological despair. The result is often suicide.


Weber had different ideas. He believed that to understand society, one had to study its individual members. And to do this properly for Weber, one had to relate to those individual members, and judge their actions from their point of view. In other words, far from advocating that you could remain objective and distant, and observe social phenomena from a removed position (as Durkheim believed), Weber said that you had to develop an empathy with the people you were studying, and understand the meaning that they themselves placed on their actions. This concept of subjective study is called Verstehen.

Weber’s most famous study was presented in an essay called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he argued that the most successful economies of the world at that time (ie the C19th) were a result of the rise of Protestantism. In particular, he pointed out the way that hard work was encouraged by Protestant sect such as the Calvinists, as well as economic gain and ‘worldly activities’ (in contrast to Catholicism, which had always had a problem reconciling making money with being a true Christian).

Although Weber didn’t say that Protestantism was the cause of Capitalism, he did say that it had provided its breeding ground. You weren’t, in other words, a good Protestant, if you didn’t work hard and earn plenty of money. The two things worked in perfect unity – they had, as Weber put it, an elective affinity.


Inside and Outside methods

So Durkheim and Weber had very different approaches to their study of human activities. Durkheim said that the whole structure determined how individuals behave (a top-down approach – or holism), and Weber said that it was the individuals that dictated the form that the whole structure took (a bottom-up approach – or methodological individualism). Durkheim preferred to analyse overall facts and figures to arrive at his conclusions, whereas Weber felt you missed the point unless you actually looked at the belief system and set of feelings of the people involved.

Another way of putting it is to say that Durkheim advocated an outside method, that is, remaining removed and assessing everything from what he believed was an objective position. Weber thought that you had to get inside – and integrate yourself to some extent with the society that you were investigating.

Why do we need to be careful with Human Sciences?

Care needs therefore to be taken with all knowledge claims made within Human Science, both in terms of the methods used in data collection, and because of the fact that it is people gathering data on people....  Using the excellent explanations in the video above, construct a set of notes on the issues created in Human Science knowledge claims because of:


Data Collection - Methods and types of questioning used

Data Collection - Sampling & Generalisation

Human agents - Observer's paradox

Human agents - Ethical considerations

Regardless of these more academic considerations, recent events have more than ever before highlighted an even more pressing and urgent need for awareness when dealing with Human Science knowledge claims, indeed with knowledge claims full stop.  The eruption of conspiracy theories and the undoubted influence such theories continue to wield has steadily increased with the growth of the digital age and the increased access to information that the internet provides.  Moreover, the use of such developments has become increasingly refined by those who would seek to both create conspiracy and use conspiracy for their own ends.  Human Science in particular can be seen to be particularly vulnerable to such trends, alongside History, insomuch as it lacks the certainty of a Natural Science or Maths, or indeed the purely creative focus of the Arts.

How and why are conspiracy theories created therefore needs to concern us if we are to ensure any semblance of trust can be maintained within any examination and attempt to academically evaluate and learn from ourselves and our own behaviour, both past and present.




















Conspiracy Theories, poor reasoning and fallacies

A logical fallacy is a failure in reasoning that leads to an argument being invalid. They are like cracks in the foundation of a building: if they are present, the building is going to fall down. So detecting fallacies is a very important part of making yourself critically skilled: if you know what fallacies are, you can both avoid making them yourself when you present an argument, and spot them when others are using them.

And use them they do. Everyday, you will probably come across dozens of fallacies. Some are present innocently – someone using a line of reasoning that is incorrect by accident. But some are far from innocent, and are deliberately employed to lead us astray. The advertising industry, politics, the media, law – in all of these areas of life, fallacies are used and abused, and more often than not, remain undetected by an audience that ends up tricked and misled.


So learning what fallacies are, and being able to identify them will help you hugely when you get into any kind of debate with other people, in school, and outside of it.


















They fall into two categories – formal fallacies (sometimes called logical fallacies), which are fallacies because of the way they are incorrectly structured logically, and informal fallacies, because the meaning of the words and what they express has been used incorrectly. An example of these two types of fallacies could be-

A formal fallacy:

Some IB students study History

John is an IB student

Therefore, John is studying History

This is a fallacy because although we can say that it is possible that John is studying History, we cannot say that with certainty, because only some IB students study History. Therefore, there is a problem with the logic of the structure.

An informal fallacy:

TOK teaches people how to argue

People argue all the time

Therefore, people don’t need to study TOK

This is a fallacy, because the meaning the word ‘argue’ is different in the first and second line, so the argument is built on an incorrect meaning. However, the difference between the two categories is often so fine that it is extremely hard to tell when a fallacy is formal or informal. For that reason, it’s more useful to simply learn different examples of the most common fallacies, to enable you to identify them when you come across them. Many of them you will already have come across, but perhaps you have never known they had a name.






10 examples of common fallacies

1. Red Herring

This fallacy occurs when an irrelevant point is presented that leads the other arguer away from the original context of the argument. Red herrings cover a whole range of other fallacies – basically, whenever something irrelevant is used in an argument, it is a red herring.

Example: A politician being interviewed on television who is given a tough question about his controversial health policies. He replies that ‘the real question’ is why the opposition party has refused to give support to the government about their new laws on immigration, thus leading the interviewer away from the relevant issue.

2. Ad hominem (Latin, meaning ‘to the person’)

A type of red herring, an ad hominem fallacy is when one of the arguers begins to attack an aspect of the other person’s character involved in the discussion, and uses that as evidence for his lack of ability to make his point.

Example: An unmarried female politician is trying to bring in new laws to give women more rights from abusive husbands. Her ideas are criticized from the other political party because she has no husband herself, therefore lacks the right experience for this kind of issue. Such criticisms would be fallacious, since you don’t need to be married to be able to justify giving more rights to women.

3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’)

This mistakenly links two or more unconnected events be proposing that one is the cause of the others occurring.


Example: Just before a general election, a country suffers a terrible snowstorm. When the voting has been completed, and the results are in, the party in power has lost. They blame their poor results on the weather.

4. Argumentum ad populum (‘appeal to the people’)

This is an argument that bases its truth on the fact that many people believe that to be the case. It is related to the rather unreliable consensus truth test.

Example: Because many people have bought a new record by the latest manufactured boy band, propelling their latest single to number one, they must be musically talented.


5. Gambler’s fallacy

The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that because a random event has happened frequently before, it has less chance of occurring in the future. The reverse gambler’s fallacy is to assume that because something has happened frequently, it will carry on doing so.


Example: You toss a coin into the air and see heads appear five times in a row. You then decide that tails have a better chance of turning up on the next toss. The reverse of this, of course, is thinking that heads will turn up again, since it seems to keep doing so when the coin is tossed.

6. Appeal to emotion

Appeals to emotions come in many forms, and involve using a form of emotion such as fear (terrorem), pity, flattery, and so on, to advance an argument. Because they rely on something that is irrelevant to the point of discussion, they are another type of red herring.

Example: A government insisting that the latest terror laws, that will violate individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression, are justified primarily because of the threat posed by terrorists overseas. This is a fallacious argument, because the supposed threat does not justify the separate issue of whether people’s rights should be violated – that is another moral issue.


7. Historian’s fallacy (using hindsight)

One of the worst mistakes to make in history is to look back on an event and assume that those at the time had access to the same knowledge that we do about that event. This is also known as ‘using hindsight’.

Example: Saying that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was a terrible mistake – because it was obvious that Hitler was never going to stop expanding, and invade Poland – is a fallacy, because Chamberlain did not have that information available to him at that time.

8. Slippery slope fallacy

A slippery slope fallacy is when the person presenting their argument tries to strengthen it by talking about a catastrophic series of consequences occurring as a result of something they are opposed to.


Example: The headmaster of a school announcing that the amount of homework set for students will be increased by 50%. The reason for this, according to him, is that he fears that academic standards are dropping, which in turn will lead to students no longer being allowed into university, and having to take low-income jobs for the rest of their lives. This will mean that they will find it hard to support future families, have a healthy lifestyle, and keep together friendships. They will as a result suffer from depression and high-blood pressure, and, because they have little or no medical insurance, will die prematurely and painfully.


9. Inconsistent comparison

There are many fallacious ways in which comparisons are made to arrive at a conclusion. Inconsistent comparisons are when different elements of two or more objects or phenomena are compared, in order to arrive at a statement about one of them.


Example: The fuel efficiency of Car A is superior to that of Car B, its price is cheaper than Car C, and its safety features are more advanced than Car D. This common advertising technique attempts to make the first car sound like the best of the bunch, but of course this is a fallacy.

10. Argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority)

This is when the authority or status of a person is used to support an argument. This fallacy is a one of the main features of the advertising industry, with the appeal of products they promote depending on its power.


Example: A well known Hollywood actor, who often plays the role of wise, authoritative characters, assuring you in a TV commercial that your money will always be safe if you join a particular bank. He acts out a short scene in which an attractive sales assistant begins to flirt with him only after he has pulled out his fancy yellow credit card to pay for something. Presumably it was his choice of bank – which you can emulate! – rather than his charisma, world fame, and vast wealth which impressed her.




















Now over to you - having watched the video on Donald Trump at the beginning of this section, and been introduced to some of the different logical fallacies used day to day, and in order to justify more sinister attempts to create non-knowledge, have a go at listening to Boris Johnson above - what fallacies can you identify as he comes under cross questioning in Prime Minister's Questions in September 2021...

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