The uncertainty in social sciences

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01.03.21 / 11.11.20 / 02.11.20


Uncertainty of social science knowledge (theory)

On the mined ground of the social sciences, a more common title:

Uncertainty relation as handicap of social sciences


          • Notes:
          • In English, French and Spanish literature, there are many contributions that connect "uncertainty" with "social science" quite carelessly. In the German-speaking world, the subject seems to be treated with pointed fingers.
          • In many of cases the authors deal with statements such as "the more general the statements, the less accurate the prediction" or they try to "quantify sociology".
          • So others take the big picture of quantum theory, have to think and argue endlessly and get lost without getting to the really relevant point. It
            is as if the collapse of Marxism is to be instinctively dodged. Well, that is freedom of thought and opinion!
          • Here the start is the immediate and practical problem of the researcher: "the experiment influences the object". After that, the thinking continues radically.
          • As far as can be seen, Niklas Luhmann in "Society of Society" comes closest to the result presented here. This is still referred to..






As is well known, the social sciences pursue the epistemological interest of better understanding the coexistence of people. Beyond the ontological point of view, it is mainly concerned with the behaviour, i.e., the processes as a consequence of action-reaction-sets in a totality of many individuals: “What happens when ... “ What is sought are models, explanations and causal chains of action to understand the behaviour (process) of single individuals or their collective. Such knowledge would make it possible to predict future states. Undoubtedly a fascination.

Experience has long shown that no matter how well-intentioned ideas and measures for improving society, fighting, overcoming or eliminating circumstances that were found or defined as undesirable, in the end they did not achieve the goal or the predicted conditions did not actually occur. On top of this there are the well-known attempts to create (design, construct) images of humanita so that a previously found or formulated theory fits in.

Society and people must understand themselves as a prerequisite for the success of such efforts. Is that possible, at least in principle? The term tautology comes to mind. Extremely simplified, because individuals are very different: If a metre is measured (compared) with another specimen, there may be the well-known surprise. Oh, wonder both specimens are alike. And especially: what follows from this?

The complexity of society and the human being is only a secondary reason why the social sciences are not classified as "exact sciences".

The much deeper reason for this is

Definition for "social science uncertainty" (ssu):

The society {G} cannot understand the society {G}

The (comprehensive) self-knowledge
of man is not possible.


The intellectual and conceptual godfather of the idea is the principle of the quantum mechanical uncertainty relation, usually known as the Heisenbergs uncertainty relation(1927). Apart from further, possibly still undiscovered analogies between the principle of social science uncertainty (ssu) and the quantum mechanics uncertainty, the following two are of importance here:

  • Observation (here: mental experiment) influence and change the object under consideration (here: society) exactly by this.
  • This limits the predictive power of any social science or doctrine (1)

If a theory {A} of society {G} is "found", published and thus learnt in society (observation, experiment, social prediction), theory {A} is no longer valid in terms of its applicability for the purpose of  prognosis; theory {A} becomes invalid through learning - whereby {A} is naturally preserved as historical knowledge.


Comments on the procedure


"Different" a society has (become) already then, i.e. a new, because different society has already been created when the first bit of additional knowledge is added. Relevant, meant and dealt with here are cases of knowledge growth that cause significant changes in the behaviour of individuals. Of course - not further elaborated here - the behaviour of many individuals already changes when only (additional) experiential knowledge is added.

The "social science incertainty" (ssu ) is used implicitly to express criticism. In particular, statements about allegedly "recognized regularities" within the framework of social processes, i.e. those in which individuals are involved in some way. So-called definitional knowledge, from which nothing directly follows causally, is of no importance in this context. For example: "Man cultivates his habits" or "the color of the wall is called blue". Problematic against the background of ssu are statements with the structure " ... because ... and therefore ... “

In the sections (A), (B) and (C) there are 10 sentences with which the principle, the ssu , is founded, described and "proved". After a cursory stock-taking in sentence 1, which is to be understood, so to speak as the basic law of further thinking, four sentences are initially formulated in decreasing abstraction. Thus the principle becomes more understandable step by step.

Derived from all 5 sentences, in section (B) three further-reaching, compelling "sentences" with partly surprising statements are formulated.

With the presentation in section (C) of two of the possibly very many value-postulates, which result from the ssu , the explanatory part is finished.

Few words ... and the digressions connect, partly only cursorily executed, the theory with real events.

The subchapters of ssu could be read in advance. But the meaning of the relatively simple statements is based on the understanding of the ssu.


How poor would be the world with unit people, whose behaviour is so similar, that with the help of statistics behaviour predictions would be possible in a reasonable way.


(A) Evidence / Justification

This mathematical notation is used with the following meaning:


  Number of individuals in the society


  set of knowledge (information) stored by n individuals,
  the knowledge carriers: usually called society


  particular Individual “i” belonging to society


  set of combined knowledge (information) stored by n individuals


  set of knowledge (information) stored in a particular individual


  set of the combined additional knowledge held by n individuals


  set of the combined additional knowledge held by individual “i”

  {G<numb>} / {A<numb>}

  Society / their knowledge (information) at specific time


  different numbers indicate different quantities (at different times). Later points in time are marked by larger numbers. The same
  number indicates quantities at the same time.


  empty set


Sentence 1, Premises for the discipline of thought:

The thinking chain to the principle of social science uncertainty (ssu ) begins with the statement "I know that I know nothing" (Socrates), through the demand to lead proofs of scientific theories by the attempt of falsification (Popper), the anti-constructivism (von Hajek) to the "shipwreck of systems theory" (Luhmann). The latter because of the fact that "knowledge of systems as a (compulsory) part of the system is 'logically intractable' " (Cf. Niklas Luhmann, "Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft", Ffm 1997, vol. 1, p.15 in the preface). (2). Furthermore it is not useful to ignore relativity and quatum theory.

Sentence 2, the set-theory logic:

If society {G1} learns {ΔA1} "about itself", a circumstance that existed and worked long ago, but was just unknown, the consciousness of this {G1} changes conditioned by the actualization of {A1}, always unavoidably. The {G1} no longer exists, it has changed into the {G2}. Expressed in set-theoretical notation:

{G2} = {G1} + {ΔA1}

Sketch of evidence: If {A1} (updated knowledge of the {G1} "about itself"), only more than the empty set, so {G1} does not (was not) explicitly contain {G1}, then {G2} > {G1}, i.e., {G2} is a larger set than {G1}. Consequently, {A1} cannot be valid for {G2}. Unless it is claimed that despite {ΔA1}, the new knowledge, {G2} = {G1}.

(The more pragmatic "not sufficiently valid" is less strict than "not valid" and should therefore be rejected. It makes no sense to cushion the "shipwreck of system theory" by linguistic ambiguity).

Sentence 3, the static consideration:

Since the knowledge stored in humans belongs to the constitutive component of society, new knowledge about society, learned from the same society, i.e. added to it, also naturally changes this society - sometimes more, sometimes less. This newly acquired knowledge is thus knowledge about an former, different, no longer existing society.

Sketch of evidence: The equation "{G2}={G1}+{A1}" says it. If {ΔA1} {G2} und {ΔA1} {G1}, {G2} is not the same society as {G1}; its difference is at least {ΔA1}. (possibly plus experience knowledge only accumulated through the passage of time).

Sentence 4, the dynamic view:

Knowledge diffuses in society {G}; if {Gi} learn "their" {Ai}, the individuals {Gi}, as in every other case of learning, here conditioned by the new knowledge, will behave accordingly differently than before.

For example, individuals react to potential problems based on expectations or prognoses in a defensive manner and strive for potential benefits. The individuals {Gi} do not accept the undesirable (future!) states predicted by the theory {A}. Affected or interested individuals {Gi} develop anti-theory {A} strategies / behaviours with the consequence that the theory {A} about the {G} becomes invalid (3).

Sketch of evidence: The set of theoretically expected, theory {A1}-conditioned process results cannot occur; because according to sentence 2 and sentence 3 the theory {A1} will have become invalid; in its place (until further notice still unrecognized) the theory {A2} will have taken its place. Since only in the borderline case {A2}-{A1} = Ø the society {G1} changes in {G2}, apart from the accumulation of empirical knowledge, predominantly thus "only" because the individuals learn new, here potential old knowledge.

Sentence 5, the overriding philosophical principle:

It is possible that it was formulated earlier in relation to humanity and its individuals:

The being escapes (his) knowledge

Sketch of evidence Note sentence 4 in connection with learning and the definition of society


(B) Further sentences

The above 5 sentences can be further generalised in loose language, more than just a reformulation. However, the following statements are partly surprising.

Sentence 6, Knowledge expansion:

From sentence 2 and sentence 4 it follows that according to sentence 5 (also) society {G} is always enraptured (“escapes” not to be understood as action of a human subject) to the yet developed knowledge space.

Sketch of evidence: Every statement results in time-shifted statements; these in turn result in statements ... etc. Because of practical and logical reasons the space of knowledge is unlimited. Neither an individual {Gi} nor collectively as a society {G} can open the space of knowledge (completely) for men.

All of this applies regardless of the fact that, according to current perceptions, the borders to the microcosm and macrocosm are open and can therefore (almost certainly) never be overcome in thought. It is possible that the latter is precisely the reason why the (potential) space of knowledge cannot be developed further than previously justified. This limitation is set by the laws of physics. If the speed of light were infinite, everything would be seen and known on the spot and nothing more needs to be said about it.

Conclusion: The speed of light c < ꝏ is sufficient for the increase in knowledge to last infinitely long. The same applies to the principle of social science uncertainty (ssu)

Sentence 7, the power of limitation:

Since all (learning) individuals {Gi} should always be members of the insofar "open" society {G}, there is no lastingly valid theory {A} about society {G}.

Sketch of evidence: There are only theories about closed societies, i.e. those to which not all people belong, because some have or have been separated. They often avoid or have to avoid transparency. Important examples are the practice of aloofness especially of absolutely ruling individuals, families, the court, cliques or the (legitimate) board of directors of a central bank.

Sentence 8, the perplexity principle:

Correctness/stability of a theory presupposes - at least for the class of social processes - ignorance. Specified: There are potential findings in the social sciences whose correctness, i .e., functionality is only given if these potential findings are not known.

Sketch of evidence: A correct theory {A} about society {G} can only exist if {G} does not get knowledge of {A}. The system {G} must not be influenced by the information {A} and thus not be changed.

Special case: temporary knowledge of domination. In this role, rulers are not part of an open society. Take the example of the central bank: In terms of knowledge of future interest rate policy, the (legitimate) body is not part of the open society. On the contrary, in this respect the council is (must be) a closed society, which consequently in this role (logically) must not be part of an open society.  

(C) Value postulates

Sentence 9, Ethics of restraint: Accepting ignorance confidently

Why even convulsively strive for the limits?

Sketch of evidence: The (full) space of knowledge remains as it is forever untapped. For this reason alone, the open society is, apart from very well-founded exceptions, ethically reasonable.

Sentence 10, Generalization, directly politically effective

Socialism has been represented for over 200 years. The basically emotional and analytically even comprehensible attempt to avoid or overcome ignorance about the future still exists. At that time (among other things) the ssu, based on ways of thinking and procedures according to sentence 1, had not yet been formulated. Possibly inspired by the physicist Maxwell, and in view of his writings, Karl Marx believed that uncertainties and ignorance could be overcome by developing fundamental principles that determined causality (such as historical materialism). In light of the social reality of his time, Marx thus provoked the somersault of the Enlightenment. The idea of the Enlightenment fell (him?) on his neck during the experiment. Absolution: Karl Marx could not (historically yet) submit to the discipline of thought defined in sentence 1 .

Sketch of evidence: The subsequent pro-socialist effect of Marx' postulates and dogmas amounted to the restriction of even intellectual degrees of freedom. It is only today that we know that this restriction also affected the then potential knowledge space. Through his postulates, axioms or rules (e.g., historical or dialectical materialism), Marx had created and justified perfect totalitarianism (see Dogma of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat), which was possibly only instinctively driven. As is well known, most socialist regimes worldwide, based on unproven postulates, collapsed around 1990 (3)


(D) A few words on the realities of recent history

These remarks are not enough. These statements were not made for their own sake, but because there are compelling consequences for real phenomena (von Hajek: "formations") such as knowledge of domination and social contract. The mathematical way of thinking offers language tools to present analysis and description of social phenomena / processes in a shorter and more understandable way.

The provocative question is: Can (for example) the practice of social policy converge towards overcoming problem situations, i.e. towards problem-free, stable conditions? No. The principle of ssu presented (4) here argues against this. Social policy may solve acute but not chronic problems, because in every society, no matter how rich, there are inevitably always and anew the poorest individuals. Themselfes or specialised activists will present the claim for social justice and enforce it, at least in a weakened form. As recent decades have shown, the catalogue of human rights may be expanded or reinterpreted. No one can be prevented from using the claviature of procedural politics, the supreme discipline of the polical business in an arbitrarily intelligent way. Any activist of proprietary interests would be well advised to keep an eye on the explanations in Excursus 1.

Occasionally, these statements must be supplemented by the considerations of Humberto Maturana, who influenced sociologists but otherwise made the epistemologically inconsequential statement that man is an autopoietic system. Niklas Luhmann recognised on this basis the self-referential character of (human) society. The result: "shipwreck of systems theory" and, probably seduced by thought, stopped "only millimetres" before the formulation of ssu. Thus Luhmann noted at the end of the preface to "Society of Society": "If the communication of a social theory succeeds as communication, it changes the description of its object and thus the object that takes up this description. See sentence 2 and sentence 3. Luhmann is only missing the short statement: "The previous theory becomes invalid.

The indeterminability of the real-current, in particular the respective new causal-causal relationships are the constant of social and social science events; there are reasons that exacerbate the problem more than because of ssu .

To round it off read Perceptibility, Consequences and all sections of Theory

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Footnotes as digressions

(1) Expiry date of social science findings: Many previous social science findings can be kept in the museum, but should never be "thrown in the garbage can". The benefit of the social sciences exists, all things considered. There is in fact a tendency to deny the social sciences their scientific character, which is expressly not followed here.

The sense of continually expanding the knowledge space for "social theory" with a view to (better) understanding society as a whole is only meaningful for "rulers" (such as the board of a central bank). Nevertheless, it is often "helpful" (useful) to "explain" partial aspects of social existence with a social theory that is defined as much or as little as desired. In both cases, however, the social science uncertainty (ssu) is inexorably valid: the validity and real utility of such explanatory models is, however, limited in time (Sentence 3 and Sentence 4).

Conclusion: “Excessive” social science should be overcome.

(2) Expansion to Socrates: "I know that I know nothing", Socrates is said to have said. This statement does not go far enough, because further expansion also applies:

I do not know "what" I know. Strictly: I do not even know "what" I know .

Of course, the individual can communicate his knowledge. But: How much of the whole can be recalled or communicated with the appropriate amount of time? Accepting these statements is part of intellectual humility and thus a prerequisite, at least help to tolerance and tolerant behavior.

(3) Presumption about the origin of dogmas: The millennia-old empirical knowledge presented in sentence 4 is probably the deeper reason why political regimes (i.e., systems of rule or leadership) have so often resorted to dogmas (unverifiable statements) for the purpose of legitimation and why, by the way, the persons involved acted in a highly totalitarian manner.

(4) "represented", not i.e. developed, because the principle of ssu already existed before and had an effect, but was not known.




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