A Dark Summer Reflection

3 August 2009 at 8:51 am 12 comments

| Lasse Lien |

Words like science, scientific, university, professor, etc. still command considerable respect in society. Why? I would suggest that the brand equity of “scientific” (and associated concepts) is almost entirely created by the great advances and visible impact of fields such as physics, engineering, chemistry, medicine, mathematics, and other natural sciences. The massive advantages and explanatory power these fields have provided to society have created a status that the social sciences benefit from, but offer (relatively) modest contributions to. If I were in, say, physics or medicine, I think I would be particularly provoked by those strands of the social sciences that seem to want all the benefits of the “brand,” but also insist on the freedom to break all the rules that created it. I would presumably cry out that if you don’t like our brand, build your own, don’t destroy ours. But then again, I might just have a bad case of physics envy.

Entry filed under: - Lien -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Pomo Periscope.

The New Issue of JEM “Unskilled and Unaware of It”

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Boumgarden  |  3 August 2009 at 9:43 am

    I agree on this front… but I wonder where, if from anywhere, movement forward can come. Beyond prestige, are social sciences just limited in their amount of explanatory power? Are there any routes forward to address this issue, or are we inevitably bound to physics envy?

    Peter Boumgarden

  • 2. josephlogan  |  3 August 2009 at 9:48 am

    Indeed. Medicine has a strong brand due to components such as the Hippocratic Oath and the perception of a high standard of evidence in the practice of the science. It also has cool things like stethoscopes, MRI machines, x-rays, syringes, hospitals, and Dr. House. Tangibility counts for a lot.

    In contrast, the theory and practice of social science topics like org theory and management tend to be primarily about ideas and hypotheses that rarely have the clear efficacy of Viagra. They’re also comparatively young. The brand is ephemeral and not well established.

    Were I a doctor, I would be pissed–if I thought much about it. I’m guessing most don’t. I suspect those in the physical sciences think about us far less than we suspect, and probably in a largely dismissive way when they do. That said, I think we have the burden of responsibility to establish our own brand rather than borrowing someone else’s. There are some easy ways to do that should we find the will and discipline to do so.

  • 3. Steve Phelan  |  3 August 2009 at 11:44 am

    Physical science also has its problems. Check out Horgan’s “The End of Science” http://www.amazon.com/End-Science-Knowledge-Twilight-Scientific/dp/0553061747

    He has some harsh reviews on Amazon but he is spot on when he talks about fields that I am familiar with (such as complexity theory).

    There seems to be quite a resistance to stating that much of the money spent on ‘science’ is wasted.

  • 4. josephlogan  |  3 August 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Agreed, Steve. One of the most damning indictments of medical practice is a continued aversion to broader adoption of evidence-based medicine. Of course, I may be committing a fallacy here: comparing social science research to medical science practice. Were the comparison between practice in both areas, I fear the social sciences would show up poorly.

  • 5. Lasse  |  5 August 2009 at 6:27 am

    Actually, I don’t think economics and management are the worst when it comes to wanting both the authority of being scientific and the freedom from all constraints on how scientific knowledge is to be created. If you want to irritate a lot of people, just state who you think is the worst below…

  • 6. Steve Phelan  |  5 August 2009 at 2:57 pm

    LOL, Lasse

  • 7. Rafe  |  5 August 2009 at 9:07 pm

    The Nature of Science (and the contrast with Non-Science) has been one of the most debilitating and time-wasting intellectual obsessions of modern times. It probably started after Newton produced Principia and it was generally accepted that this was The Truth and it was obtained by Induction from massed Empirical Evidence, aided and abetted by Sophisticated Maths and it proved itself by its capacity to Predict in detail (and in advance, as Yogi Berra would have said).

    The bottom line of this argument is that we should be less concerned about whether a theory or a body of ideas is scientific (by which definition?) and more with its capacity to solve problems, provide understanding, explain things (in principle, or by tendency), stand up to criticism, lead to interesting research questions and help with formulating and testing policies (private and public).

  • 8. Steve Phelan  |  6 August 2009 at 3:03 am

    Rafe, the trouble is that astrology was quite good at a) solving problems, b) providing understanding, c) explaining things in principle and by tendency, and d) standing up to criticism, and e) formulating policies. Its predictions were also woolly and difficult to test.

    Substitute any pseudo-science that you like for astrology: psychoanalysis, neoclassicial economics, resource-based view (oops!)

    Ultimately, the power of science comes from empirical verification of hypotheses (that are not tautological) and the willingness to revise hypotheses to fit the data. As theories become more complex and harder to test and gather data, the power of science declines. This is the central message of Horgan’s “The End of Science” discussed earlier.

    The social sciences are just one example of an area where the scientific method is imperfect – thus opening the door for pseudo-science to flourish.

  • 9. Rafe Champion  |  6 August 2009 at 3:55 am

    Good points Steve, but it is better to talk about standing up to tests rather than fitting data, I was going to say something critical about data mining to get what you want out of your data set. Logically there is no such thing as verification (of general principles): testing is logically stronger and it is also the most cost-effective way to use data. You do need verifications-corroborations some of the time (preferably a lot of the time) because you want to have a sense of heading in the right direction!

    Pseudosciences (including psychoanalysis) only provide pseudo- explanations, unless they turn into science by adopting the approach that you nominated – revising their hypotheses in response to negative results. The theories of pseudosciences do not tend to form integrated systems (with well tested theories in other disciplines) nor do they generate good questions for further investigation.

    I would like to read Horgan’s book, there is another book of interviews with Nobel scientists which I reviewed.

  • 10. Steve Phelan  |  7 August 2009 at 4:38 am

    Nice review, Rafe. I’m sorry for choosing my words carelessly. I don’t favor data mining. My bent is more towards Lakatos or Laudan – see my paper on What is Complexity Science, Really – for an overview.

  • 11. Steve Phelan  |  8 August 2009 at 5:58 pm

    A wonderful ‘dig’ at the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) can be found here:


  • 12. Lasse  |  8 August 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Hilarious piece Thanks for posting the link.

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