The art and aesthetics of (social) science

Sometimes people are surprised that an artist (me) is in a rigorous social science PhD program. The common perception is that the type of thinking that artists do is aesthetic, emotional, subjective, whereas scientists in academia are more often engaged in objective, scientific, logical types of thinking.

I actually find the two disciplines to share a surprising amount in common. The types of output are obviously very, very different visually and conceptually. But maybe surprisingly, aesthetic plays a huge role in modern social science, and a big part of a PhD program is actually learning to recognize and critique different aesthetic research traditions while also working to produce your own, hopefully aesthetically attractive creative work.

The social scientist weaves together ideas about the world with some kind of observations from it, and presents a composite package that attempts to say something meaningful about a social process. Like traditional visual arts, there is very much an objective technical component (fluency with statistics, mastery of brush control), but neither art nor social science are judged purely on technical ability alone. Instead, a set of concerns that can be loosely described using the word “aesthetics” dominates.

In political science and economics, causal questions are all the rage - attempting to understand whether X causes Y (eg, does the type of government you have affect your country’s economy?)1. The kicker with causal questions is that they are basically impossible to answer completely, because you can never compare the world with X to the world with not-X for the same person/country/state/etc. X either happened or it didn’t - we’ll never know really how the United States under a dictatorship would have turned out because we live in the timeline where it is a democracy2. Not being able to observe the “counterfactual” is known as the ‘fundamental problem of causal inference’.

Every attempt to answer a causal question is flawed. We get around the issue by making certain, untestable assumptions about the world and our observations - but each of these assumptions is an imperfection in the intellectual house of cards that makes up a research paper. The aesthetic question is whether the flaws are truly ugly, or merely acceptable, or in rare cases even elegant.

  1. Whether causal questions themselves are “beautiful” or important is also an aesthetic concern. 

  2. For now. 


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