Is computer science a doomed course

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Text: Tobias Straumann

In order to depict the world precisely, the humanities differ fundamentally from the natural sciences. They also deal differently with the problem of imprecise findings.

Anyone who studies history learns in the first semester that there is no such thing as objective facts, because we always perceive the past in a highly selective manner. Much of what has happened is not even handed down, and the way in which we interpret sources is always dependent on our personal preferences, which are influenced by all possible factors. We are aware of some of these factors and not of others. The complete disclosure of one's own knowledge interests remains utopia.

But the historical discipline has the right to appear as a science. The students are made familiar with the methods of source criticism, literature evaluation and writing. The aim of all research is to make the argumentation and empirical basis as transparent as possible. The degree of scientificity is measured by how well a historical work is intersubjectively comprehensible and verifiable.

In economic history, the claim to be scientific is even more pronounced than in general history. The reason for this is that not only qualitative sources, but also serial data make up the empirical basis and are often evaluated with the help of statistical analyzes. Like economics, quantitative economic history (cliometry) tries to identify and weight the influence of certain factors on a clearly defined phenomenon.

How are the students supposed to interpret these contradicting signals? Do the humanities and social sciences really work scientifically? Or is it just a doomed attempt to describe certain regularities of human thought and action? From a strictly epistemological point of view, the latter is undoubtedly the case. It is implausible to assume that people behave according to generally applicable rules that need to be discovered. The natural sciences, on the other hand, are quite capable of identifying regularities. So anyone who studies history or economics should always be aware of how imprecise the knowledge conveyed is.

From an ethical point of view, the humanities and social sciences definitely deserve the label "scientific". Because it is their ideal to make their research as systematic as possible and to present their results as transparently as possible. After graduation, economists and historians may not be in possession of universally valid truths, but they are able to distinguish serious work from charlatanry. This is by no means to be underestimated in today's world.

The fact that the students develop a strong methodological awareness, however, requires that the ideal is consistently lived. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In economics, the data are sometimes “questioned” until they “make a confession”. Sometimes the data quality is also extremely dubious, and yet it is used to feed a model. Occasionally, in history, authors whose opinion is politically inconsistent are simply not quoted. Therefore, from my point of view, the question of the scientific nature of the social sciences and humanities is ultimately a question of the character of those who practice them.


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