Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Cares What Philosophers of Science Say About Science?

Chris House tries to set out "the scientific method":
The scientific method goes something like this:

Formation of hypotheses

If you can follow these steps then anything (even economics! even macroeconomics!) can be studied scientifically. When economics is at its best it truly is a science.

A purely empirical study is a necessary step in the scientific method (it’s step 1).
Here is the funny thing about this sort of view, which is way too common among economists: philosophers of science abandoned this simple model beginning 50 or 60 years ago, and today you would be hard pressed to find any philosopher of science who would take it seriously. In particular, the idea that a "purely empirical study" is step one of this method came to be understood as fantastical: no one could possibly do an empirical study without a theoretical apparatus and an hypothesis to test already in mind. (To see the absurdity of this idea of step one, we should imagine someone wandering around with a notebook and writing down, "Grape: purple. Chipmunk: 3 inches long. Dow Jones Industrial Average: 16,436. Venus: brighter than Jupiter. Salt: dissolves in water," and so on. Then, after this period of "purely empirical study," the person begins to try to think of an hypothesis that explains all of the facts they have collected.)

This revolution in the philosophy of science was achieved largely by paying more attention to what scientists actually do and less attention to how science ought to work if it is to fit some logical schema. And here is the funny thing for those who would dismiss this by saying, "Well, who cares what some philosophers of science think?": think about a list of those most influential in leading to the rejection of the "sixth-grade-life-science-textbook" version of the scientific method: Alfred North Whitehead was a physicist and mathematician; Michael Polanyi was a world-class physical chemist; R.G. Collingwood was a professional archaeologist; Paul Feyerabend trained as a physicist; Thomas Kuhn earned his PhD in physics and then did serious work as an historian of science; Karl Popper had a PhD in psychology; Ludwig Wittgenstein had trained as an aeronautic engineer; and F.A. Hayek was an economist of some note. It was precisely those philosophers of science who were trained in (and often highly accomplished in) a scientific discipline themselves who did the most to debunk the "scientistic" worldview and the simple model of "the scientific method" that helped to support it. 


  1. This naive process fits better how Bob Murphy thinks about conspiracies and the federal government. A stockbroker in Manhattan had a double soy latte when for months he had a macchiatto. Is this a super secret signal to the Krugmanite barista to activate the chemical sprayer.

    To judge by what I see on his blog today anyway.

  2. I think I'm getting the idealist worldview and what you're talking about here—looking at what scientists are doing instead of thinking about what they should do — is a good illustration of it: the "ought" and the "is" are sort of woven together, both part of reality. They're not concluded, but "perceived" instead, and human activity (i.e., how scientists perform their experiments) is the process manifested as fact. That about right?

  3. By the way, this reminds me of what Richard Feynman had to say in one video I watched on YouTube yesterday. He said something along the lines of you can know what something is called, but you won't know anything about it until you can see it. I'll try to find it.

  4. Yes! You are cleverer than me: it took me a decade to grasp this.

    1. I find myself largely in agreement with it and you have a lot of interesting straightforward stuff to say on it. It involves stuff like the Feser quote you posted about directly "perceiving" other minds. To think and to realize is to "perceive". The deal on moral disputes is a result of "perceiving" notions of morality "built in" to the world, but "seeing" it from different angles. It's really strange, but in a good way.

      I think I also understand what you've posted on principles, prudence, and the difference between tacit and technical knowledge. Principles are statements of the "disposition to choose", tacit knowledge manifesting itself as technical knowledge. It's like how a photograph is a manifestation of concrete reality. Prudence is the selection of incomplete knowledge. Libertarians who are bound up in ideology don't even realize that they're using it because they wouldn't know how to apply the NAP to begin with (when they manage to apply it correctly). The reason it can never be technical knowledge is that you run into "That's not what I mean!" scenarios, and it's also the reason "a priori" knowledge is impossible. Technical knowledge is formal while tacit knowledge is "clicky" and is notionally similar to "impression". That about right, too?

      I assume that it's the use of careful redefinition that creates an ideology. If so, then I think I've partly fallen for it. Quite interesting.

  5. I think I find myself largely in agreement with it. I think I understand what you've been posting about principles, prudence, and the difference between tacit and technical knowledge.

    With regard to principles, they are statements of the "disposition to choose", which is the tacit knowledge. They are tacit knowledge (i.e., "the gut feeling") rendered in technical form, like the same way concrete reality is captured by a photograph. Prudence is the selection of what you have incomplete knowledge of. It is a manifestation of tacit knowledge. Libertarians bound up in ideology don't even realize they're using it because they must have had first experience of something that constitutes aggression in order to even apply the NAP correctly (when they actually do apply it correctly, rather). That about right, too?

  6. I think I also understand what rationalism is, too. It's like taking something that is metaphorical so as to be real. In other words, it loses the context behind an idea. For instance, property rights, which are a notion abstracted from the context of a political community, are taken to exist outside of a political community. I think this is probably the same mistake that groups like "freemen on the land" run into with common law. It's also the same problem behind the "I didn't sign it" objection to social contract theory.


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