Failure of the academic approach

Published 9:12 pm Monday, February 24, 2014

By Joseph L. Bass

We are better at creating innovative technologies than solving social problems. Why is that? Consider how far we’ve advanced technologically, as opposed to socially, just in my lifetime.

My parent’s first telephone was a wooden box hanging on the wall. It was necessary to crank a handle to power the phone and signal the operator you wanted to make a call. You can see a phone like that at many Cracker Barrel restaurants, displayed as an antique.


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During my childhood, people rode horses to town. Some homes used lamps for light. Some homes had ice boxes, with 50-pound blocks being delivered. There were no televisions and few radios.

But we struggle with the same social problems humans have struggled with for thousands of years. I remember when the telegram came informing my grandparents and mother that my uncle had been killed right after the Battle of the Bulge. I was in the Army during Vietnam; my cousin was killed there. My son is in the Army Reserve and a civilian employee for the Department of Defense. I have lost track of the number of times he has been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Korea.

Other unsolved social problems include poverty, poor health and slavery in many areas of the world. Governments and economies are controlled by a few so that those few can live in luxury. Civil wars, social unrest and illiteracy are common in many nations.

Why are we not better at solving social problems? How can we improve our efforts to bring about positive change in the social world?

First, our academic approach to studying the social world does not reflect how it functions. It functions as in interrelated whole; a change in one area will bring about changes in others. Our universities attempt to study the social world in fragments. The “social sciences” are divided into psychology, philosophy, criminology, economics, political science, sociology, literature, art, music, anthropology, geography and so on.

Many of these academic areas do not approach their field of study as a science. A “science” is a systematic effort to form testable explanations and predictions about how something functions.

Most social scientists do not apply the scientific method to research projects. For example, our study of literature only focuses on the stories and how they are told; we rarely consider the social settings of the stories and how the ideas expressed by the authors reflect on our world today. Most Shakespeare research attempts to determine who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, but few focus on political science, what we might learn from them and how what learned can help us improve society today.

Another failing aspect of social research involves social scientists organizing research studies in a way to “prove” a political position that can not be supported through application of scientific methods. Their findings and conclusions are actually social propaganda. It is interesting to note that people with limited formal education more easily see through these academic facades than many better-educated people who should know better.

We will not begin to create and apply innovative solutions to our social problems until we apply the scientific method in our efforts to learn about society and improve it. Only then will we be able to make the same kinds of dramatic social improvements as we have made in technologies during my lifetime.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at