She blinded me with science

17 02 2014

When to let go and when to hang on?

This is one of the conundrums ways I’ve come to interpret various situations in life big and small. I don’t know that there is ever a correct decision (tho’ I’ll probably make the wrong one), but one chooses, nonetheless.

Which is to say: I choose to hang on to the “science” in political science.

I didn’t always feel this way, and years ago used to emphasize that I was a political theorist, not a political scientist. This was partly due to honesty—I am trained in political theory—and partly to snobbery: I thought political theorists were somehow better than political scientists, what with their grubbing after data and trying to hide their “brute empiricism” behind incomprehensible statistical models.

Physics envy, I sniffed.

After awhile the sniffiness faded, and as I drifted into bioethics, the intradisciplinary disputes faded as well. And as I drifted away from academia, it didn’t much matter anymore.

So why does it matter now?

Dmf dropped this comment after a recent post—

well “science” without repeatable results, falsifiability, and some ability to predict is what, social? lot’s of other good way to experiment/interact with the world other than science…

—and my first reaction was NO!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t trust my first reactions precisely because they are so reactive, but in this case, with second thought, I’ma stick with it.

What dmf offers is the basic Popperian understanding of science, rooted in falsifiability and prediction, and requiring some sort of nomological deductivism. It is widespread in physics, and hewed to more or less in the other natural and biological sciences.

It’s a great model, powerful for understanding the regularities of non-quantum physics and, properly adjusted, for the biosciences, as well.

But do you see the problem?

What dmf describes is a method, one of a set of interpretations within the overall practice of science. It is not science itself.

There is a bit of risk in stating this, insofar as young-earth creationists, intelligent designers, and sundry other woo-sters like to claim the mantle of science as well. If I loose science from its most powerful method, aren’t I setting it up to be overrun by cranks and supernaturalists?


The key to dealing with them is to point out what they’re doing is bad science, which deserves neither respect in general nor class-time in particular. Let them aspire to be scientists; until they actually produce a knowledge which is recognizable as such by those in the field, let them be called failures.

Doing so allows one to get past the no-good-Scotsman problem (as, say, with the Utah chemists who insisted they produced cold fusion in a test tube: not not-scientists, but bad scientists), as well as to recognize that there is a history to science, and that what was good science in one time and place is not good in another.

That might create too much wriggle room for those who hold to Platonic notions of science, and, again, to those who worry that this could be used to argue for an “alternative” physics or chemistry or whatever. But arguing that x science is a practice with a history allows the practitioners of that science to state that those alternatives are bunk.

But back to me (always back to me. . . ).

I hold to the old notion of science as a particular kind of search for knowledge, and as knowledge itself. Because of that, I’m not willing to give up “science” to the natural scientists because those of us in the social sciences are also engaged in a particular kind of search for knowledge. That it is not the same kind of search for the same kind of knowledge does not make it not-knowledge, or not-science.

I can’t remember if it was Peter Winch or Roger Trigg who pointed out that the key to good science was to match the method to the subject: what works best in physics won’t necessarily work best in politics. The problem we in the social sciences have had is that our methods are neither as unified nor as powerful as those in the natural sciences, and that, yes, physics envy has meant that we’ve tried to import methods and ends  which can be unsuitable for learning about our subjects.

So, yes, dmf, there are more ways of interacting with the world than with science. But there are also more ways of practicing science itself.

We just have to figure that out.




3 responses

19 02 2014

“It is not science itself”, well there is as you know no Science itself but if we aren’t to measure results against the kinds of things I proposed than what would we hold them to/against?

19 02 2014

No, there is no essential or absolute science, but there is the practice of science, one which methods ought reveal something about the subject.

In the case of political science, historical study, comparative study, hermeneutics, critical analysis, and yes, statistics, can all be brought to bear on the varieties of the political experience. Any predictions will of necessity be probabilistic, and only the most simple-minded of statements (e.g., “women are unable to participate in politics”) can be definitively falsified, but these make the search for knowledge difficult, not impossible.

20 02 2014

but what do we measure the predictions against, what’s the constant in all of these ever changing/reassembled events?
Not sure that we ever get to more than a description and more often than not very abstracted/thin ones at that, not sure how we decide the the factors foregrounded in any such reporting are the ones (to the degree that they actually exist or are close enough, how would we know?, representations of factors at work) that made the difference or not?

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