Hiding Behind the Scientific Method

OK I finally put my finger on what bothered me so much about the Scientific American writer who was so appalled at the "unscientific" assumptions made by economists, when really all the guy meant was that the assumptions were false.

I've noticed a trend--particularly in the Intelligent Design debates--for scientists to sort of wash their hands of any responsibility for whether what they're saying is actually true. Instead, it sometimes seems to me as if they're covering their butts, and they sound like neocon defenses of the Iraq invasion. "Hey, don't blame me if our dating of that dinosaur skeleton turns out to be wrong. That is the best hypothesis we have at the moment. It passed the peer-review process. If a critic out there really had a crushing point, he would have published it in a journal."

Now folks, please don't bite my head off. Of course there are a lot of differences between the two, not the least of which is that I endorse the vetting process in the natural sciences, as opposed to the Defense Department.

But even so, I will do armchair psychoanalysis and say that some people who are attracted to the natural sciences (or a fortiori, mathematics) are afraid of being wrong. And so a field where success is pretty objective, and where you can follow the rulebook and always be able to justify what you did, appeals to that kind of person.

On the other hand, the people who disdain science are quite sure they're right, and don't even see the need to constantly check their conclusions against outside evidence. So they could be attracted to fields, especially artistic ones, where there are not as many objective measures of inherent quality. In a sense, I think that's why artists are the most courageous of people, because there's really nothing official that tells us it's better to own a Picasso than a Callahan.

I hope it's clear here that I'm not choosing sides. I'm neither criticizing nor praising natural scientists or artists. I'm just reflecting on what types of personalities would be drawn to the different fields, and how that might explain some of their stereotypical strengths and weaknesses.

One last illustration: In the climate change debate, the proponents of the "consensus" view are very reassured that so many other smart scientists agree with them. I don't think they're just saying it to convince the public; I think they constantly repeat that so in case they're wrong, they have tons of company.

On the other hand, the yahoos who call up Glenn Beck to rip on Gore don't care if they're the only ones who see it like it is.

And then to tie these observations into a comment on the end result: I think the consensus scientists are basically wrong, while the talk radio callers are basically right. The scientists are very precise in their inaccuracy; they are all on-script and all understand very well the list of reasons for the IPCC view. However by always checking on what everyone else thinks, on the rare occasion when the consensus turns out to be wrong, then it becomes difficult to change. It can get locked in, with thousands of scientists all analyzing the heck out of the wrong spot for the answer.

In contrast, the blowhards don't get their details right, and lots of times make idiosyncratic, invalid arguments. But because they are each starting from scratch, they are all looking in the general direction of the right answer. Each person is limited and so doesn't describe it well, but he's in the ballpark.


  1. From my essay, "Pragmatism and Economics":

    Later in his paper, Friedman defends economic methodology on instrumentalist as opposed to realist grounds. Friedman concedes that the basic assumptions of economics—people have rational preferences among outcomes; individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits—are certainly not true in any universal sense and may not lead to reliable predictions insofar as the phenomena under examination are the assumptions themselves. However, Friedman argues that we can use these same assumptions legitimately if they are successful in predicting other phenomena of interest.

    Friedman provides two examples. First, suppose a physicist wants to predict the shots made by an expert billiard player. The physicist can reasonably assume that the expert billiard player will make his shots “as if he knew the complicated mathematical formulas that would give the optimum directions of travel, could estimate accurately by eye the angles, etc., describing the location of the balls, could make lightning calculations from the formulas, and could then make the balls travel in the direction indicated by the formulas.”[5] Of course, even the most expert billiard players do not actually go through this impossibly complex process. Rather, our assumption that expert billiard players will act as if they do go through this process is justified based on the argument that “unless in some way or other they were capable of reaching essentially the same result, they would not in fact be expert billiard players.”[6] The phenomenon of interest is not the rationality or mathematical ability of the billiard player, but the results of his shots as if he acted upon perfect rationality or mathematical ability.

    Friedman’s second example is similar to an evolutionary argument. Suppose a biologist wants to predict the density of leaves around a tree. The biologist can reasonably assume “that the leaves are positioned as if each leaf deliberately sought to maximize the amount of sunlight it receives, given the positions of its neighbors, as if it knew the physical laws determining the amount of sunlight that would be received in various positions and could move rapidly or instantaneously from any one position to any other desired and unoccupied position.”[7] Of course, leaves do not act this way; indeed leaves do not “act” at all in the sense that action requires conscious choice. Rather, those areas of the tree which receive more sunlight will be more conducive to leaf growth, and thus denser than areas which receive little or no sunlight. The phenomenon of interest is not the consciousness of the leaves, but the results of leaf density in relation to sunlight as if leaves were capable of conscious action.

    However, there is a weakness in Friedman’s argument. As-if assumptions may be useful and reliable insofar as they are applied to the specific phenomenon for which they have been tested. But this presents a difficulty if economists ever wish to apply these assumptions to new applications, with no assurance that the same approximations will hold true. The as-if assumptions will need to be empirically tested for each new application; they cannot be relied upon as general principles because the assumptions themselves have not been tested as the phenomena of interest. Still, Friedman’s instrumentalism seems closer to pragmatism than to logical positivism.

  2. Bob,

    Right on.

    I think you have a book here. Seriously.

    Now all you have to do is crank it out, but youv'e got it.

    I'll write a way in advance review: "Should be on every scientists' bookshelf. Right next to Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions"

    Allow me to suggest a title:

    "Personality and Scientific Thinking"

    BTW I believe a similar situation occurs with investors, where investors of one type personality will make money during certain conditions, and investors with other type personalities will make money during other periods.

  3. Micha, I'm sorry but I'm not totally seeing the connection. And I'm intimidated by the length of the comment.

    Robert, it's funny you say that, because I was just thinking I should write another book soon. But I had in mind a popcorn booklet, not something this deep. I think my toddler will have to get a little older before I can write really heavy stuff.

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