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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Humanities Aren't Science? More's the Pity

Science is a way of knowing that is evidence based and requires rational thinking and healthy skepticism. It's the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented.

Whenever investigators in the humanities discover new knowledge it turns out that they have been using a scientific approach. They've been thinking like a scientist. What else could they be doing?

Maria Konnikova is a graduate student in psychology at Columbia University. She writes in Scientific American that Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one.

Well, it's certainly true that many disciplines in the humanities are very unscientific—evolutionary psychology comes to mind—but this is one of the first times I've ever heard someone be proud of the fact that they don't think scientifically. Why in the world would she say that?

Turns out she's confused about what science is and what it isn't. She thinks that science requires lots of quantitative data and lots of mathematics and statistics.
Sometimes, there is no easy approach to studying the intricate vagaries that are the human mind and human behavior. Sometimes, we have to be okay with qualitative questions and approaches that, while reliable and valid and experimentally sound, do not lend themselves to an easy linear narrative—or a narrative that has a base in hard science or concrete math and statistics. Psychology is not a natural science. It’s a social science. And it shouldn’t try to be what it’s not.
Hmmmm ... that might explain a lot. I guess if you are seeking knowledge in the social sciences it's okay to use a non-scientific approach to gain knowledge. I wonder what approach they follow? Do they pray for guidance? Use a Ouija board? Or do they just make stuff up?

Maybe Konnikova is just saying that humanities disciplines are not chemistry, physics, biology or geology? Nah, that's too obvious. It doesn't merit an article in "Scientific" American. Maybe we'll find out what she really means when her book comes out in January. It's title is: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Did Sherlock Holmes think like a scientist or did he think like someone in the humanities?

[Hat Tip: Mike the Mad Biologist]


  1. [Science is] the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented.

    That's a bold statement. I "know" that given a sphere and a cube of equivalent surface area, the sphere encloses more volume than the cube, but evidence based testing wasn't involved in getting that knowledge.

    1. I wouldn't confine science to experimentation; it doesn't strike me that Larry is doing so in this post. In the example you cite you are still using a scientific approach to know something about the world by using mathematics.

    2. So the mathematics involved are neither evidence nor science?

  2. Science is a way of knowing that is evidence based and requires rational thinking and healthy skepticism.

    And that's different from history, how? Or philsophy?

    1. Not different. That's why I think history and philosophy use the scientific approach.

  3. The point about humanities not being a science is methodological and topical. The methodology of many humanities is not quantitative as science is. That is one of the things that is most striking: science involves measurement (by which criterion some things that are touted as science are not), while humanities deals with qualitative data (things like historical facts, psychological states, and so on). Some humanities, especially in the social sciences (which hard scientists think isn't a science but which many humanists think is) do use quantitative data, but then again they end up making qualitative arguments.

    This brings me to the second point: what counts as a humanities subject is a matter of what topics were assigned to that rubric back in the development of the modern scheme of education and specialisation. Most of the divide was established back in the 19th century, but some of it goes right back to the Trivium and Quadrivium of the middle ages. There is no principled reason for the distinction beyond the tradition of academic division.

    But there is a deeper point in the linked article. Making the humanities act like a science (however defined) is, in effect, a gambit to remove or reduce the humanities and replace them with science. This explains why so many university administrators and politicians want to do it: science is easier to quantify the benefits and achievements of, so it makes planning easier to justify. Reducing to eliminating the humanities allows more resources to be diverted either to the sciences, or our of the academic environment. It's not surprising that some scientists want to do this.

    1. A lot of what we do in the biological sciences is not quantitative. Much of my thesis, for example, involved purifying a protein. Does that mean it wasn't science?

      Much of Darwin's work was strictly observational, not quantitative, including his discovery of natural selection and his evidence for evolution. Was it science?

      John, assuming that the knowledge discovered in the humanities isn't gained by the way of knowing we call scientific, what term do you use to describe that way of knowing? How many different valid ways of knowing are there in YOUR worldview?

    2. You were pretty tough on the science fair winners with respect to what is and is not science. By that standard, purifying a protein is not science, it is biochemical engineering.

    3. Good point, anonymous. Your question helped me clarify my position.

      First, with respect to the science fair winners, the difference is due to motive. If your goal is to use scientific knowledge to make a better product or improve the life of humans then it's technology. If your goal is to discover new knowledge then it's science.

      Second, you can use technology to seek out new knowledge. In the case of protein purification I was using existing technology to isolate a protein that had never been characterized before. I learned a lot about the protein once I had purified it. I think that's a legitimate part of a scientific investigation. So is collecting data on the effects of unemployment and dysfunctional households even though those social workers might use computers and automobiles.

      The main point was that a lot of what we do in biology isn't quantitative. If Wilkins wants to define science by its methodology then that immediately gets him into hot water.

  4. She lost me at 'linear narrative'. 'Narrative' is the most gratingly overused word in the English language these days.

  5. I imagine many would claim that evidence, rational thinking and skepticism are employed in good scholarship in the humanities too and not the sole province of the sciences.

    To John's third point above I agree there is a real devaluation of the humanities in many universities right now and that is to our detriment. But I don't want historians to jettison evidence or rational thinking when doing their research or teaching.

    I think the push from university administrators for the humanities to justify their existence comes more from the business mindset that has crept into academia rather than the scientific mindset that values quantification. More science applications lend themselves to products or services that can be commercialized compared to the humanities. However, there is a great deal of science that cannot be commercialized too and this also ends up having to justify its existence.

  6. "Maybe we'll find out what she really means when her book comes out in January."

    You don't have to wait until January. You can read Konnikova's
    articles in Scientific American:

  7. It's all too typical of Larry to use a facile put-down, conjuring up out of his own prejudices suggestions of Ouija Boards and guidance, basically putting words in his target's mouth (something he both delights in and excels in) when all he needed to do was lift his eyes above the paragraph he cites here to find:

    "An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning."

    That doesn't sound very woo woo to me, though perhaps to Larry it does?
    So here we have something that I find very interesting. First, Larry seems to wish to broaden the meaning of science until it doesn't seem to mean anything other than 'finding things out'. Then he chooses not to apply this broader meaning of science. He poses a question; does she mean Ouija boards and praying? But then he doesn't find out what the answer is. No, Larry; she doesn't.

    How very 'unscientific' of you!

    1. 'finding things out' is a very good description of science. Richard Feynman specifically used the phrase.

      The difference between the social sciences and real science is purely skepticism. Social scientists can and do accumulate data points, they apply statistics and on the surface they do all the same things as scientists, but much of it is cargo cult science. They do not apply critical thinking and skepticism to their conclusions. It is beyond doubt that trying to produce theories of the mind and behaviour is very difficult but that is no excuse for not trying.

    2. Acleron, if science is merely finding things out, then Larry has essentially opened his post with a tautology; to wit, finding things out is the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented.

      This is hardly deep.

      If you read Ms. Konnikova's article, I think you would find her to be just as wary of cargo cult science as you are. Personally, I'm going to continue to follow up on her ideas.

    3. The fact that an adolescent feels shame is an observation. It's not a way of knowing and it's not—or should not be— the endpoint of research in the social sciences.

      It's what you do with that information that counts.

      I'm happy to engage in a debate about different ways of knowing. So far the only one that's been seriously proposed is religion and faith. If the humanities have discovered a new way of gaining knowledge ("truth") then why are they keeping it a secret?

    4. So far the only ways of knowing that have been seriously proposed are religion and faith?

      I believe you are already being rigid in that regard. Art, music, poetry, etc. can produce 'knowings' in people that cannot be quantified, nor should they. Inspiration, i.e., sudden insights, intuitions, 'gotcha! moments, etc, are activities of knowing that have led to discoveries in science as well as great achievements in the arts, leaving aside religion as it would be pointless to argue with you that it has yielded anything worthwhile.

      In this broader acceptance of what knowing is, and how people come to know (you, obviously, may NOT accept this as qualifying as knowing), taking into account the causes for a child to feel shame (particularly since these feelings, once they have originated, WILL influence the chemistry of the child's brain as it continues to develop, recalling the nature vs. nurture debate) while not attempting to reduce the child to a mass of measurable data that can be acted upon as if he were a specimen in a petri dish seems like a very wise course. I think that's what she's saying here. But I'm not sure. I hope that she responds to this post because I would love to see her defend herself much better than I am doing now.

    5. When you "reduce" a complex scene to part beyond possible, you obviously loose "meaning". Any chemist will will tell you that "reducing" a molecule reactivity to physical QM fields actually reduces the undertandability and prediction ability of any chemist. And biological rule are beyond "pure" chemistry. The complex problem is better discussed in terms of more general and integrative rules. All in the world is nothing but interacting QM fields, but even physics has many topics discussed in a different frameset. This is called "emergence", and is a very well known circumstance.

      In that way, if Konnikova is only re-stating this, "psychology is not chemistry", that's no news.

      But if psychology is to be considered an science, the key point is not the amount of raw measurement, maths and statistics you drop on it, but the use of evidence and critical thinking. Ufologists, chi-practitioners, and a lot of pretended "psycho-bable" will add terrible calculations, math-bable etc. to their nonsense (not speaking of IDiots and biblical numerologists). But the nonsense remains nonsense.

      On the other hand, it seems to me that andyboerger is defending ART. And in his defense he is confusing humanities (scientific disciplines like History) with art. But art is NOT a way to produce new knowledge.

    6. No, ART is an integral part of human experience. Even, art is considered one key feature separating us from other beings.

      But art alone is not a way to obtain new knowledge. It is not a way of knowing. Knowledge is different from "personal experience", or "inspiration" or "sudden insight". Art is about personal, inner, emotions and experiences, is about the beauty produced by a skilled performer. Knowledge is about general rules in the external world.

      Archimedes is famous for his "eureka", Otto Loewi for his dreaming. But being scientist they just didn't contemplate their insight in ecstasy. They put it in a wider picture of how the external world works.

      That said, science can be an art also (LM may agree that protein purification is more an art than a science) and provide a setup for moments of deepful insight (may of us are in this job for that moments). But the personal experience of the practitioner is different from the output product.

    7. andyboerger, let me use your example
      "In this broader acceptance of what knowing is, [..] taking into account the causes for a child to feel shame ..."

      Onc description of those causes may be
      a) feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic
      b) feeling of shame because Apollo has mangled his spirit and the moon is well over Sagitarius
      c) feeling of shame because the cranial shape shows an eccentricity of 1.002 and zigomat arch is 2.3+/-0.2 mm shorter than average combined with a body weigth index is <25 while protein cdc25 is overexpressed

      the "scientific value" of those descriptons is not equivalent, and not reside in the mere description itself. The scientific approach reside in HOW you decide the "truth value" of each descrition. If you decide based on logic, previous evidence, observation and experimentation (or any combination of that), that is "science". If you decide between the there based in a "superior truth" that cannot be addresed by evidence or experimentation, that's "faith".

      By the way, No amount of maths or "quantitativeness" will make nonsense less nonsense.

    8. Enrique, your points are well taken and I don't disagree with anything to a strong degree. I would just differ with you in that I think 'knowing' CAN be expanded in meaning to include insights and inner wisdom. But I of course see that this is not the same thing as 'knowledge' as you are applying it.

    9. If by "knowing" you are refering to "personal revelations" or "trancendent experiences", that kind of things has an intricsic problem: they are non-tranferable, they are strictly personal. We are in the realm of qualia here.

      Knowledge is transferable, and in that way is testable, and you can convince onther people of the truth of your assertions by reason.

      But "knowing" is strictly personal, the only way to convince other people is having them to experience the same "transcendental insight". But such a thing is impossible. My experience is always different from yours. The moment you "know absolutely" that something is true for you but you cannot explain with logic and evidene to others, that moment that something has gone to "faith".

      Science works towards consensus, "knowing" always produces sects.

      "knowing" has its place in personal life of scientists. But insights got that way must be worked out in form a logic/reason/evidence/experimental argument before they are "knowledge".

      "Knowing" are the hypothesis (many ways), the process to validate insights as interpersonal truth by reason is "science".

    10. Enrique, you raise an interesting point, because some would argue that a certain something that falls WAY outside of contemporary science, and predates it, DID in fact include shared experiences. That would be meditation. The ancient meditators of the Hindu tradition gave specific information about what level of meditation they had reached, up to and including 'seeing the blue light' of ultimate illumination. They were able to gauge the level of understanding and development their devotees were reaching precisely according to how they described what they experienced during meditation, and if this bore out in how it yielded changes in their personalities. Many scientists, of course, consider this nothing more than 'delusion', but in fact this was taking place long before the Greeks began to codify scientific methodology. It could in fact be considered a kind of precursor, in that it was 'testable' and 'verifiable'' i.e., disciples were questioned about their experiences by a guru who had himself proven himself through his OWN work with HIS guru. I really don't care if someone like Larry or Richard Dawkins wants to lump this together with religious fundamentalism, or just call it woo woo. I don't see a good reason why that should bother me, who is not a practitioner, and I CERTAINLY don't see a reason why it should bother those who ARE practitioners. I put human beings before science, and I put our vast array of experiences ahead of just one, and a relative upstart at that.

    11. andyboerger says,

      Art, music, poetry, etc. can produce 'knowings' in people that cannot be quantified, nor should they.

      Art, music, poetry etc. produce "feelings." They may induce people to discover real knowledge using real evidence but that doesn't necessarily follow.

      I can't think of a single example where a poem or a symphony produced some real knowledge all by themselves.

      Same with art. I recently went to a Picasso exhibit and didn't learn a damn thing worth putting in my textbook. :-)

      Inspiration, i.e., sudden insights, intuitions, 'gotcha! moments, etc, are activities of knowing that have led to discoveries in science as well as great achievements in the arts ...

      Agreed. There are all kinds of things that can trigger an investigation or make one think of a new approach to a problem. However, I can tell you from personal experience that most (99.9%) of my intuitions and "gotcha" moments have turned out to be useless or wrong.

      How do I know that? Because I had to follow up on the inspiration by finding evidence and applying healthy skepticism. That's a necessary step. You can't just declare that all your dreams, no matter how exciting, count as real knowledge. That's not a valid way of knowing.

    12. andyboerger says,

      Many scientists, of course, consider this [meditation] nothing more than 'delusion', ...

      Yes we do, for good reason. We also think that people who claim to have been abducted by UFOs are deluded no matter how convinced they are that they have been to a new level.

      ... but in fact this was taking place long before the Greeks began to codify scientific methodology

      Lots of delusions are ancient. The ancient Israelites, for example, were convinced that their god was giving them real knowledge even without meditation. What's your point?

    13. "Yes we do, for good reason". I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that one of the reasons is that you yourself have never studied under the tutelage of a Hindu guru and therefore have no way of ascertaining if his realizations are authentic or not.

      Even Sam Harris admits that there ARE such things as moments of spiritual illumination, and sees the value of meditation. Of course, because he is operating from a scientific mindset, he believes that all of this can be attributed to material processes related to brain chemistry. But he considers them to be worthwhile avenues of exploration nonetheless.

      Comparing the copious accumulation and passing on of knowledge/practice that went on in Hindu mysticsm centers with UFO abduction stories seems peculiarly incurious. The former actually DOES have points of comparison with your beloved science (teacher/student dynamics, testing and evaluation, a form of 'peer review', etc.; whereas the latter does not.

    14. andyboerger says,

      I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that one of the reasons is that you yourself have never studied under the tutelage of a Hindu guru and therefore have no way of ascertaining if his realizations are authentic or not.

      That's correct. I've also never been a Mormon or a Muslim or a Moonie. Guess what? Even though I've never studied under Sun Myung Moon I still think his ideas are not worth following.

    15. well, yes, indeed. But that only tells me something about you. It doesn't tell me whether or not the Hindu mystics were on to anything. Should I consult you for everything else too? You're the standard?

  8. Maybe you would care to define a "scientific approach."

    1. that could help, because according to LM, science is "the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented."
      Why, just the other day I wanted to know how many plays Skakespeare had written, so I looked it up. Now I know there are 37 Shakespeare plays. I didn't know I was being a scientist! I also saw two guys arm wrestling in a bar the other day. It was so fascinating to watch their scientific approach to finding out which one was stronger.

      It also makes one wonder how science ever came to BE invented. If people were incapable of 'knowing' before they invented science, how COULD they have invented science in the first place? Maybe it came about by random mutation?

  9. @andyboerger
    Larry posts articles like the above because of people like you. You were being scientific when you deduced there were 37 Shakespeare plays. Further application of the scientific method along with new evidence might cause you to modify that number. Science is a methodology that can be applied in any sphere including things like history. You also do it when you are deciding whether it is safe to cross a road. It is indeed the only reliable path to knowledge. The idea that it only pertains to men in white lab coats holding test tubes is ridiculous but as some comments here show, widespread.

    1. Actually, I don't count learning that Shakespeare published 37 plays as "knowledge" in the sense that I'm using it here. It's a fact, an observation, but it's not knowledge that yields a universal truth.

      I also don't agree with the idea that there's a "scientific method." There are many, many, different ways of reasoning like a scientist and that's why it applies to evolutionary biology as well as the history of the Roman Empire.

  10. Well, then, Shawn, if that is what it is, please tell me how it was 'invented', to use Larry's word. Cats decide when it is safe to cross a road too, you know. Did cats 'invent' science, or is Larry rather using his broad definition to exalt science?

  11. while the precepts of what is called the scientific method may have been formalized at a definable date, mechanistic qualities of empirically-based deduction were not. yes cats do it too I, just not nearly as well as humans for obvious reasons.
    When you want to cross a road, you form at least two hypotheses to wit: it is either safe or not safe to cross road. Then you collect data, not just one way, but with your electromagnetic radiation detectors and soundwave detectors and possibly other data collection mechanisms. You will not settle on the hypothesis that it is safe to cross the road unless all the data agree. And then you will continue to collect new data even as you come to accept that it is safe to cross the road. You will consider your conclusion to be provisional for as long as any conclusion is required. In a nutshell this is what scientists do to obtain what we hope is reliable knowledge...someone interested in reliable information regarding number of plays written by Shakespeare does this too.

  12. Refer to my comment to Acleron above then, as Larry is essentially merely stating the obvious.

    Using our sensory data and mental dexterity is the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented.

    Well, duh.

    Except it wasn't 'invented'.

    1. "Invented" is somewhat metaphorical. What I meant was that the scientific way of knowing arose over the course of many centuries until it became the established practice in many societies. The ancient Greeks, for example, made significant contributions. It is not intuitive.

      Unfortunately, there are still many societies than have not got the message. They still believe that supernatural beings are the main source of knowledge. Some believe in other sources of woo that aren't necessarily religious—that's why astrology, homeopathy, and vaccination phobia are so prevalent. It also explains the philosophy of the right wing who think that for-profit, private, health insurance for the rich is the best way to run a society.

    2. Larry, that's a very reductive way of looking at it. These 'societies' you refer to use science all the time. Both in the simple way Shaun and Acleron give it as simply 'finding things out' and in the fact that their countries run on electricity, just like ours does. If they want to make 'holy wars' on other countries that believe differently from them, they don't ask witch doctors to put spells on their enemies. They buy the most up to date and efficient, scientifically tested weapons they can afford to get their hands on.

      Your problem seems to be not that they don't use science, but that they don't ONLY use science, and that they don't exalt it over all other forms of human enterprise. Science IS great, but I think it is arrogant to put it up on a pedestal, or even to maintain that it is mankind's greatest achievement.

    3. The problem is when these other ways of knowing make truth claims about reality. What truths have these other ways revealed? They mostly seem to give crazy or discredited ideas a place to hide. People make up stories about water having memory and all of a sudden you have water being touted as a some kind of cure for a specific ailment. It's ridiculous and it's because evidence and rational thinking are not valued in these other ways of knowing, which can only be detrimental in my view.

    4. Hmmm ...

      Perhaps you could help clarify matters by explaining what other ways of knowing the humanities use? Don't forget to tell us why you think those other ways—whatever they are—have been successful.

      I understand that you don't like science but you're not helping your case by avoiding mention of any better alternative.

    5. "I understand that you don't like science...."
      No, you don't get that. You assume that. I am critical of science, but why shouldn't that be so? Science is a very important and pervasive part of our lives, so we need to look at it critically. I am critical of religion, particularly organized religion; if anything I am even more critical of it than science.
      But most pertinent to my comments here, I am critical of those who exalt science's position and overstate its importance, meanwhile trashing other human endeavors, at the same time cavalierly distancing themselves from things like environmental degradation and nuclear weaponry because they insist those are merely things that RESULT from science. I refer to such people as scientific triumphalists, and they, not science, are my most frequent target.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. "Perhaps you could help clarify matters by explaining what other ways of knowing the humanities use? "

      As I wrote earlier, I would prefer that Ms. Konnikova respond to this post and explain what she means far better than I could. To the extent that science means 'finding things out' perhaps nothing at all; perhaps something very different that I would not presume to state in her place.

      I WILL, however, be charitable, and assume that it is not Ouija Boards or prayer.

    8. DCoburn, I concur with what you wrote.

    9. andyboerger says,

      I refer to such people as scientific triumphalists, and they, not science, are my most frequent target.

      If that's true then you need to be more careful about picking you target so you don't shoot innocent people.

      And you need to improve you aim considerably because right now you might just as well be shooting blanks.

  13. well, duh, indeed. If you want to concentrate on the word "invented" fine. But what of all the nonsense of people insisting there are "other ways of knowing". This is more in line with what LM was getting at, I would think. Wish it was as obvious to all as you seem to think. Perhaps he was referring to the systematic codification of scientific method, if he meant anything specific at all.

  14. I see we still have no definition of what the "scientific approach" specifically consists of. I suspect Larry will want to keep it that way, since, if he gets too specific, will not allow him to claim that what the other disciplines are doing is universally scientific; and if he gets too broad, his definition will become meaningless for purposes of this question.

    1. The scientific approach to gaining knowledge is to rely on evidence, healthy skepticism, and rational thinking.

      Feel free to propose any other definition of "scientific approach" that you think is better.

      If you can't do that, then feel free to shut up.

    2. Okay. Is it all of these at once (i.e., any "scientific approach" must rely on all three of these criteria, no less)? Or would an approach that consisted of any of these them alone qualify (e.g., would an approach that was only skeptical, but not evidence-based or rational qualify?)?

    3. Feel free to propose any other definition of "scientific approach" that you think is better.

      I'll try, though I don't have it clear.

      First off, scientific method involves making generalizations. A pile of data with no hypothesis is not particularly science, though there's a place for collecting data in the hope it will someday lead to something interesting.

      Second, there's a place in science for reproducible results. I say that if you're limited to N facts with 2N confounding variables and your theories have developed 3N fudge factors, that it is not science. It doesn't have to be completely reproducible -- if you have a theory about a particular kind of star you can do some testing on it without having to build stars to spec. But there needs to be an element of reproducibility there, and if your theory explains 2% of the variance and you can't fix that, then you have a problem.

      Third, there's a place for reductionism. If you have two different theories that explain two different areas, and you can extend one of them to work for both areas, that's good. Human brains are not that big. Human lifetimes are not that long. The smaller we can get our theories without falsifying them, the better.

      So -- generate ideas and keep testing them against reality. Look for simplifications that still work, and keep testing those.

      Maybe that's evidence and rational thinking.

      Skepticism? Sure. Keep looking for incompatible ideas that also work. Don't get stuck in a rut. Some alternative approach might work even better, and you won't know until you actually try it out.

      I guess my approach really boils down to Laurence Moran's, but when it's just three words I feel like it's easier for people to use the words and mean something else.

  15. List of words that Larry is using in a non-standard sense:

    1. Science
    2. Knowledge
    3. Invent

    So, essentially, the first sentence means something to Larry that it wouldn't mean to most people. Humpty Dumpty would be proud.

    1. Please help me out by giving me YOUR definitions of "science" and "knowledge."

      And, BTW, it's clear that to you the phrase "non-standard" means that it's not the definition YOU prefer.

    2. Please help me out by giving me YOUR definitions of "science" and "knowledge."

      What my definitions are is completely irrelevant to a discussions of what your definitions are.

      And, BTW, it's clear that to you the phrase "non-standard" means that it's not the definition YOU prefer.! Not even close!

      Larry, there is huge body of work on the demarcation problem within the philosophy of science, and no-groups purely deductive schemes, such as mathematics and logic, with inductive schemes, such as science. Given the amount of time you spend dinsmissing the philosophy of science, you should be aware of the research in demarcation, because, as someone who promotes the use of logic and critical thinking, you shouldn't be dismissing concepts that conflict with your worldview out-of-hand.

    3. I'm well aware of the debate among philosophers over the demarcation problem, although I don't profess to be an expert. I posted several times about the issue and included philosophers who agree with me.

      You are implying that there's widespread agreement among philosophers on how to define science. That's not true. There is no standard definition. If there were you would be telling me what it is.

      I'm also aware of the fact that SCIENTISTS have an opinion. Imagine that!

      I notice that you enjoy criticizing my definition but you still haven't provided an alternative. Why? What's the problem?

    4. Larry, you need to stop putting words in people's mouths. You did it to Konnikova in your post; and you're doing it to me now.

      I never implied that "there's widespread agreement among philosophers on how to define science"; I explicitly stated that there is no philospher of science defines "science" as you do. In other words, the consensus (or lack thereof) on the demarcation problem within the philosophy of science is irrelevant to your definition because you have manufactured a position that no-one in the field actually holds.

      If you want to assert that "[s]cience is a way of knowing that is evidence based and requires rational thinking and healthy skepticism", you are free to do so. However, you can't pretend that such an assertion is an actual position on demarcation within the philosophy science.

    5. Michael M says,

      I never implied that "there's widespread agreement among philosophers on how to define science"; I explicitly stated that there is no philospher of science defines "science" as you do.

      I stand corrected. When you said that my definition was "non-standard," it turns out that you didn't mean to imply that there was a "standard." I apologize.

      In other words, the consensus (or lack thereof) on the demarcation problem within the philosophy of science is irrelevant to your definition because you have manufactured a position that no-one in the field actually holds.

      I use the broad definition of science that's explained in the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry [Science]. While it's true that many philosophers use a narrow definition—so they escape the threat of being incorporated into science—it's not true that they all do.

      But there's a more important issue here. You are assuming that philosophers are the only legitimate players when it comes to defining science. I disagree. I think that philosophers have been notoriously unsuccessful at solving the demarcation problem because they have been hung up on allowing room for other ways of knowing, especially religion and faith.

      That's what the whole "methodological naturalism" myth was about.

      Surprising as it may seem, scientists also have a say in defining science. What I'm trying to do is create a "soundbite" definition that will serve as a jump-off point for further discussion. My definition is shorter, but not much different from, that used by scientists like Alan Sokal.

      It's been a real surprise to me over the past few years to see how easy it is to refute the claims of prominent philosophers of science when they try to define and limit the purview of science [What's Wrong with Michael Ruse's View of Accommodationism?]. That suggest to me that scientists my actually be able to make a contribution to this discussion.

      If you want to assert that "[s]cience is a way of knowing that is evidence based and requires rational thinking and healthy skepticism", you are free to do so. However, you can't pretend that such an assertion is an actual position on demarcation within the philosophy science.

      Okay, let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that no philosopher of science agrees with me. (I take that as a compliment given the silly nature of what often passes as deep philosophical thinking [e.g. The Problem with Philosophy: Elliot Sober]).

      Can you tell me what's wrong with my definition other than the fact that most philosophers of science don't like it? More importantly, can you give me a better one; especially one that's defended by some philosophers of science?

      If you can't come up with a superior definition then you're just whistling in the dark.

    6. So, Larry, your argument basically boils down to the fact that I haven't presented a definition that you consider "superior" to yours make your definition the best definition?

      That's some spectacular logic!

      The basic problem with the definition you have presented is that it doesn't involve any sort of empirical falsification, which is essential to why homeopathy and astrology aren't science. All that your version of science seems to require is a conclusion that logically follow a set of axioms, and that is not how any philosopher of science constructs demarcation.

    7. Michael M says,

      So, Larry, your argument basically boils down to the fact that I haven't presented a definition that you consider "superior" to yours make your definition the best definition?

      Nope. That's not what I said. All I'm asking for is ANY other definition that you be prepared to defend. Of course I'm going to argue that it's inferior but you are free to dispute the issue.

      The fact that you are afraid to even offer a different definition suggests that you don't have one that will stand up to close scrutiny.

      The basic problem with the definition you have presented is that it doesn't involve any sort of empirical falsification, which is essential to why homeopathy and astrology aren't science.

      The scientific way of knowing requires evidence. There's no evidence to support homeopathy or astrology. Therefore belief in them is unscientific.

      The issue of "empirical falsification" is bogus. There's lots of legitimate knowledge that can't be empirically falsified, Examples range from knowing that there's no tooth fairy, to knowing that the laws of physics and chemistry probably apply throughout the universe, to knowing that some humans behave irrationally.

      We can't even prove that homeopathy never works under any circumstances. Does that make it scientific by your definition?

      All that your version of science seems to require is a conclusion that logically follow a set of axioms, and that is not how any philosopher of science constructs demarcation.

      What "axioms" are you referring to? Can you give me an example of a definition of science that does NOT require anything you describe as an "axiom"? Is "empirical falsification" an axiom?

  16. herrings (ahh, and here rationality is useful) become dried and twisted in the shape of pretzels. Some people are offended by the concepts of science, or scientific, or the scientific method, etc. Its reasonable enough, since these terms are often used as common shorthands for rational, empiricism-based deduction or associated ideas. Some disciplines are offended because all too often they are dissed as being unscientific and therefore the response is to rail against science saying another (their) approach is just as effective and/or useful. But it is the same thing really, whether done poorly or well. Others rail against science/scientific method (epiricism) because it is in such dramatic contrast to faith-based belief, and many know it. Yet the reason they are not dead right now is because they employ one strategy over another before crossing a road.

  17. Konnikova draws some unfortunate conclusions about the relationship between science and quantitative methods. This association seems to be far more common among social scientists than natural scientists in my experience. Natural scientists don't have NEARLY as much anxiety about qualitative approaches to their research as social scientists do. There's a good explanation for why this is the case, but I'm not interested in delivering a boring history lecture.

    In Konnikova's defense, a quantitative bias does still exist in many departments, and there is a perception that quantitative research is almost always better funded than qualitative research and that it is more sciency than qualitative research. I imagine she is reacting, at least in part, to that bias.

    Okay, now that I have defended Konnikova, I will make a criticism: I don't think she knows much about the natural sciences or how porous the boundaries between disciplines are once you get past the territorial disputes. Everything is messy, even our beloved physics.

    The big problem with the social sciences has less to do with philosophy, methodology, and theory, than the subject matter itself. Seeking the kind of reliability or replicability, verifiability, and predictability that we associate with "harder" sciences just isn't feasible in the social sciences despite centuries of attempts by incredibly smart people (many of whom came from the natural sciences).

    Does this means that the social sciences aren't sciences? I don't think so. I also see the value in Dr. Moran's broadening of the definition of science. Modern science has better ideas and tools, and it is certainly more rigorous and sophisticated, but the classic definitions don't work very well anymore. Newer definitions of science are more ambiguous, accounting for the fact that there are some core, if hazy, principles that unite the best of what various disciplines have to offer.

    I do think that "other ways of knowing," in addition to being incoherent, ignores the fact that there are good and bad ways of making and assessing knowledge claims, and science, when you get right down to it, is a particularly robust collection of the best processes for just such an endeavor. These boundaries, as I said, are porous. Useful in some contexts, but not so much in others.

    1. Is mathematics incoherent?

    2. Mathematics are incoherent in the sense that there may be propositions that cannot be decided true/false within the same set or rules. I think a better word here would be "arbitrary".

      Maths can be arbitrary, but "knowingly arbitrary". No scintific will try to "prove" results derived form acceptance of the choice axiom with theorems depending of its negation.

      "Other ways of knowing" many time simply fail to realize that such cases exists. Even more, sometimes they are based on knowingly attributing a definite truth value to paradoxical and indecibible proposition and applying results to the whole despite logical incoherency.

      Science or "scientific thinking" is not about mathematical "proof" (though that helps, since rule out a whole lot of hypothetical alternatives), it is about the process to assign a truth value to non-mathematical, "opinable", propositions in the absence of the whole information, the whole truth.

      Science in a way to get solid, trustable, knowledge WITHOUT absolute thruth. The better way we know for that.

    3. Jonathan Simmons asks,

      Does this means that the social sciences aren't sciences?

      I don't really care if researchers in the humanities refer to their discipline as "science" or not. What counts is that they have to use a scientific approach to acquiring true knowledge about their subject matter.

      Often they don't use a scientific approach. That doesn't mean they've discovered a new way of knowing. It just means they're doing bad science.

  18. Philosophers have argued about whether or not mathematics is a science, whether mathematics is
    science-like, or if science is mathematics-like. The more we have come to understand how science works, the more difficult it has become to consider it a separate area of inquiry with essential properties.

    1. I don't think that it is hard to see that mathematics constructs concepts that, when given a physical interpretation, are easily shown to be empirically falsifiable (and empirically falsified), yet still constitute knowledge. Therefore, Larry has some pretty serious problems with his definition of "science".

    2. Why? Please, explain.

      Science is the process, not the topic.

      "Empirically falsified" is a truly scientific way to asses the validity of an hypothesis. You know that certain math construct does NOT occur in nature. That's knowledge, yes. So, what?

      In this example, "knowledge" is NOT the math construct in itself, but your realization of when and for what it is aplicable and it is not in a particular context. Because contexts are infinite, that's the reason that NEW knowledge is always possible. There is no closed set of "truth".

  19. I think there is a key distinction between a valid way of knowing and a valid way of thinking about stuff. Science is, to my knowledge(/thinking!), the only way to come up with an objective probability that approaches 100% so closely that one could be forgiven for saying that you "know" it. Whilst other approaches can provide very informative and/or interesting ways to think about a subject, if they do not have the falsification/verification provided by science, they are not a way of "knowing".

    The humanities/science question for me is whether science has to result in knowledge to be science? I don't think it does. All it has to do is be rational and objective about the level of confidence it has in certain conclusions. History and other humanities can do this too - the difference is that they (like studies of questions of evolutionary history) - generally cannot provide extremely high confidence in conclusions. As a result, they will often (or, at least, should) stop at saying "we think X because of Y" rather than "X conclusively demonstrates Y".

    If Maria Konnikova is simply saying that psychology cannot produce that level of certainty but does not claim to and therefore should not be criticised for failing to do so, I think she has a point but I would (I think) also agree with Larry that it should still be treated scientifically - just science with honest unknowns and error margins. If, on the other hand, she is implying that because this kind of quantitative assurance is impossible, we do not need it to generate "knowledge", I think that is wrong.

    I wonder whether the problem - as so often - comes down to language. If a discipline is used to inserting an invisible qualifier that statements of fact are, in fact, unfalsifiable statements that are consistent with observation, they might interpret them accordingly and not have a problem with it. Someone from a "hard science" will read the same text without the invisible qualifier and say "you cannot conclude that".

    Personally, I do get deeply worried when someone tries to suggest that scientific principles do not apply to their discipline and yet still claim it provides some kind of knowledge. The objective critical thinking that is core to science should be explicit in these other disciplines, if only to make sure that any qualifiers regarding certainty remain up-front and visible. (Art is different. It is gloriously subjective. It is not a way of knowing but it can definitely be an inspiration and open up ways of thinking.)

    1. My guess, and I'm only guessing here, is that Ms. Konnikova is arguing for a synthesis of scientific, evidence/research based principles and a more ad hoc methodology because the human brain, and human experience in general, is not something that can easily BE quantified. In other words, what is the point of psychology, to serve human beings, or to serve the scientific method ( a human construction ). If the latter, then by all means let people like Larry criticize her for seeking outside his own personal comfort zone of 'what works'. If the former, then if non-quantifiable but nevertheless efficacious approaches yield either a deeper understanding of human psychology AND/OR provide individual patients with a spectrum of healing choices that 'pure' science poo poohs, then why should anyone have a problem with this?

    2. Yes, my guess is that Konnikova is worried by methodological/quantitativeness issues also.

      But I think that she attacks an strawman there. Or at least attacks what many consider BAD habits or even pseudoscience. Science is NOT about quantitativeness, scientific arguments can be qualitative and in fact many of them are.

      She is right that insistence in fake or pointless "measurements" is BAD.

      But it is even worse to throw away the "science" tag for History, Psychology or the whole Humanities.

      Please, think about the value of a "personality resume" redacted by a professional learned psychologist and one by an astrologer. Which one do yo trust more? Why? The reasons in that "why" are the differences between science and other things.

      By the way, "non-quantifiable but nevertheless efficacious approaches" is contradictory, impossible in fact. Efficacy can be measured and counted. If not, how do you now that procedure X is efficacious at al or not? You can even distinguish between procedures for greater or lower efficacy. "Qualitative" scales (bad, poor, regular, good) are measurements indeed.

      I am concerned by your pick of "spectrum of healing choices that 'pure' science poo poohs". The reality is that medical science is all in favor of "human treatment, wide open view of the person, consider the emotional side of the patient, deep understanding of human being" etc. "Pure science poo poohs" is a terrible misappreciation of practicing medical doctors. And approaches alternative to science based medicine simply do NOT heal better than standard medicine. And that's definitely mesasurable, and has been assesed reapeatedly.

      The best way for psychology (or ANY other discipline) to serve human beings is by constructing a base of solid, trustable and interpersonal knowledge. What many of us are stating is that the better way to do that is by evidence- and reason-based critical thinking.

      Please, think of the suffering that alternative explanations to "An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic" (evil-cursed, godless, marked by being born under Sagitarius or full moon etc.) have done to many generations of youngsters. Analogue examples are not scarce in this realm. History is abundant of examples of what can happen if the topics managed by Psychology/Sociology are really treated in an unscientific way.

    3. Enrique, conceded, in that the broad application of 'quanifiable' being 'it works', then that which is efficacious is also quantifiable in strictly those terms. However, it may not be quantifiable in that it ALWAYS yields the same result for each patient. Each patient is an individual, and even more than an individual, a sort of 'coalition' of past history, chemistry, orientation toward a more analytical or intuitive perspective, etc, as well as a host of other variables that truly make each of us different. Put simply, have you ever met a human being who was exactly like another human being in your whole life? I thought so. On the other hand, have you ever purchased a CD of your favorite music and expected it to be exactly like another version of the same CD that you could just as easily have taken from the shelf? I thought so.

    4. Anyone will tell you that expecting that a treatment will always yield the exactly same result in a given person is only naive.

      "Quantitative" doesn't mean exact and infinite precision. In fact, infinite precision do not exist in nature.

      But I do not see your point. You have not commented in the other, more relevant parts, of my reply, and fail to see where this hereclitean round goes in this context. You know, phanta rei is no news. Neither are individual differences in a population of any kind. So?

    5. Enrique, I will reply more thoughtfully later as it is now late here in Tokyo.
      As I mentioned to Larry, I don't want to speak for Ms. Konnikova, as she is the PhD candidate and could give far more interesting and meaningful clarification than I.
      What types of modalities might she be referring to? Art therapy? Music therapy? Jungian psychology? Work that doesn't alienate patients who DO have strong religious beliefs and want them incorporated into their healing process, otherwise it won't work for them (are psychologists and psychiatrists comfortable with that, and should they be?) Etc. etc.
      I think there may be all sorts of things she is referring to that she, herself, does not define as science per se, but that you perhaps do. There may be others that neither you nor she see as science, but that she is convinced of the validity of, and she may just well be right about that. These are the thoughts that I will leave you with for now; I regret that I am such a poor substitute for the author herself.

    6. Enrique, in answer to your earlier response, you wrote, "The best way for psychology (or ANY other discipline) to serve human beings is by constructing a base of solid, trustable and interpersonal knowledge. What many of us are stating is that the better way to do that is by evidence- and reason-based critical thinking. "
      Do you think that Ms. Konnikova would disagree with this? If so, why? To me, it seems more likely that she WOULD agree wholeheartedly, and that the point of her article is based on the fact that human beings are very complex and often mysterious, not comparable, as I perhaps too flippantly alluded, to carbon copy CDs.
      Larry Moran, in order to trivialize her point, wonders if she is referring to 'Ouija Boards and prayer', right? I hardly imagine that she is, but I would like to use the example of prayer to construct a hypothetical scenario that seems plausible to me.

      Let's say a psychiatrist is treating a schizophrenic patient who is also a Christian fundamentalist. The doctor has good reason to believe that she will respond to a certain medication. She, however, refuses to take the medication and insists that Christ is the only healer. First, the doctor suggests to her that perhaps Christ wishes to work THROUGH the medication. She is moved, but unconvinced. She insists that she will only take the medication if the doctor prays with her as she does so. The doctor, though not a Christian, agrees to go along in order to begin medicating her. After a time, the patient shows signs of recovery.

      How much of the above scenario was 'science'? If one wants to argue that science basically means 'what works', then the prayer was science, because it was an essential part of beginning the medication. To someone else, ONLY the medication was science, but the prayer was clearly important in terms of how it opened the way to the medication. Perhaps Ms. Konnikova would think this. To Larry, perhaps, NONE of it was science, as he seems to draw a distinction between applications of science and 'pure' truth finding. I don't know where he places in medication within his own definition.

      The point is that no scientist working in other, 'harder' fields, is ever going to confront a similar situation. No biologist is ever going to have to work with a Christian fundamentalist bacterium, right? The complexity and not always rational nature of human beings seems to automatically call for greater flexibility in approaches, does it not? I think that is the point that she is making.

    7. Dear andyboerger, your christian patien scenario has nothing to do with creating new knowledge or having a particular vision of the world.

      ¿Do you really think that in that scenario payer had any REAL healing power? It seems that your doctor simply uses it as a trickery to get the patient to comply with treatment. But actual healing comes from medication if I read your description correctly. This is only RATIONAL: you want some outcome, and knowing human psychology do as appropiate to fold the behaviour of your target.

      The scene is an application one, not creating anything new. But that's not the keypoint to call it scientific or not. ¿What type of knowledge is been applied? How has been obtained? What type of understanding of how the world works?

      There is absolutely no piece of "other ways of knowing" in your example scenario. Only rational thinking.

      If your doctor would had rejected that certain medication (in spite of evidence) because a "revelation insight" had convinced him that only dressing the patient in blue suede, for instance, then you would be talking about "other ways of knowing". Even if the doctor accepts praying to christian god only as a trick to get the patient dressed in that blue suede.

      It seems to me that you have a very simplistic and "robotized" vision of what scientists think and do. We are no "numbers and facts" zombies, we even are humans and understand emotions (and sometimes know how to manipulate them). Heck! some even have emotions themselves (and cheat their husband or wife).

    8. Enrique, I can only conclude that we are arguing past each other. I am not trying to introduce prayer as a new kind of knowing, I am trying to account for what Ms. Konnikova is most likely referring to in her article. I am not arguing with you as to whether or not there are other ways of knowing than science. Of course in the hypothetical situation I gave above the only beneficial treatment was the medication, but the prayer WAS necessary to get the patient to take it. I am suggesting that these types of fuzzy, gray area type decisions will apply more in humanities type studies than in harder ones like chemistry and physics. This has absolutely nothing to do with what I imagine scientists to be like and your suggestion that I imagine you to be robots and zombies is frankly, bizarre. I am simply trying to interpret Ms. Konnikova's meaning as best I can. It seems that you are doing something else and so we are just spinning our wheels here.

    9. Enrique, perhaps if you would just, if you haven't already, read the article in question and tell me which parts of it you are opposed to. I think perhaps that would enable us to move forward better. I believe we mostly agree on things, and I also think that, as I mentioned before, Ms. Konnikova would agree with the lion's share of what WE agree upon. We seem to be getting snagged on definitions of terms, and in fact it seems that words like knowing, knowledge, science, etc. are a tad ambiguous to begin with, hence Larry's original reason for challenging Ms. Konnikova's article.

  20. It seems that the people strongly disagreeing with Larry, just want him to admit he's wrong without explaining why. I see numerous comments telling Larry that there are other ways of knowing and that Larry is using definitions of science etc incorrectly.

    When Larry asks about what these other ways of knowing are and how they work or what definition of science etc. the commenter is using, the commenters refuse to answer. 'I'll leave it to Konnikova to reply' or to ignore the questions altogether. It seems to me that if you want to have a discussion, you need to be to explain and defend your position not simply attack the position you disagree with. As an otherwise non-participant in this thread, I'll just assume you have nothing other than 'I don't like your opinion, but I don't know why' opinion.

    1. TL, I have no interest in seeing Larry 'admit he's wrong'. I am not even sure he IS wrong, and even if he was, the notion that I would get any satisfaction from such an admission seems rather strange to me. I just want to share my own ideas; when I disagree with something someone else writes here, I express that. No brownie points when someone concedes a point. In fact, I'm grateful for this site and the opportunity to express views that run counter to Larry's.

      But I feel that it is very possible that he is being unfair to Ms. Konnikova, or that at the very least his tone is unnecessarily dismissive of her. He poisons the well by going for the facile invocation of Ouija Boards and prayer. He writes, "Turns out she's confused about what science is and what it isn't. "
      Do you disagree with me that he writes in such a way to diminish her? If not, is that nevertheless more okay with you than the posts that challenge him that you take issue with? And if so, why?

  21. .... Alan Sokol....

    LM, at the link I find that Sokol said this

    I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-[fi]rst century.

    Is that the definition of science that you say is close to your own? "respect for evidence especially inconvenient .... that challenges our preconceptions"?

    First, I doubt anyone, even the fundamentalist who wouldn't know science if it did a dance in front of him, would disagree with that. I'd think that anything from physics to the creation of fiction with a serious intention or even some aspects of abstract painting could qualify as science, in that case. Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" comes to mind.

    He also says:

    science is a fallible yet enormously successful method for obtaining objective (albeit approximate and incomplete) knowledge of the natural (and to a lesser extent, the social) world

    I'd disagree entirely with the inclusion of the "social world" as covered by science, though the success of physical science is undeniable for any thinking person. I have, on these science blogs, gotten a remarkable amount of flack for pointing out the approximate and incomplete nature of scientific knowledge. Just recently for pointing out the tiny amount of the phenomena that are encompassed in evolution that is available, not to mention the entirely missing evidence of the origin of life on Earth.

    I prefer the more pedestrian and old fashioned idea that science requires an adequate level of observation of physical phenomena, the ability to measure what is observed, the analysis of the combined observation and quantification to support what is concluded about it, as well as the review process. Whatever can't be subjected to those processes can't be science. History and philosophy as well as the law all meet the Sokol's hurdles but don't meet those limits of what can be included in science.

    I've found a good novelist can reveal more about human character and society than "science" can. Nothing in science can tell me what Sofia Gubaidulina's "De Profundis" does but I wouldn't want to be without it.

  22. TTC, you are confounding art for science.

    Art may be a source of insights that eventually will become knowledge, but art in itself if a different kind of mind output. But art is also different of academic Humanities.

    Both science and art, along true interpersonal relationships, are needed for a plentiful human experience, for happiness.

    On the other hand, I understand your concerns but I do not see a fundamental difference in the way many natural sciences are constructed (ecology, ethology, much of geology, astronomy) are constructed and many social sciences. In many natural sciences one cannot do real experiments, only observations of ongoing and non-actuable bahaviour. Just as in many social sciences.

    Sokal boutade shows how easily some disciplines can be abused if standards are relaxed. The whole incident calls for more critical thinking evidence-based argument (i.e. more science) not less.

  23. Enrique, as I said that science was restricted to observation of physical phenomena that could be adequately observed, quantified, analyzed and stand up to review, I think you must have missed a few things in my comment. Read the next to last paragraph in my comment where I give what I'd say were requirements for something to qualify as science.

    It was Alan Sokol's definition of science that seems to be overly broad. I didn't bring up Sokol or link to that article.

  24. Having just read Konnikova's article, I get the feeling that in everyday parlance "science" is the approach we take to things that are more or less in isolation from their environment. It is easier to analyze things that can be isolated, such as the physical components of our world. But the more we look at them in their broader context, where the skein of relationships and variables becomes impossibly tangled, the more difficult it becomes to apply the "scientific method" simply because the mathematics and measurements involved become so complex as to be beyond our comprehension and capabilities.

    To a super-mind of the kind we cannot even conceive yet (except, perhaps as God - but I don't even want to go there), perhaps social science is as amenable to equation-making and theory-based predictability as is physical science. But to us today social science is too big and complex a field to take on in that vein - and our own involvement in what we are trying to study, i.e. our trying to act as both student and studied, makes the field of study even more impossibly convoluted. Marx, one of the greatest political scientists of all time, produced a wonderful construct, but the experiment of history has proved that the predictive power he invested in his theory is completely lacking, i.e., there is nothing inevitable about the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Not even the grammar of language has yet made itself amenable to full and thorough "scientific" analysis. It is just too complicated. There are still some things that at our present stage of development it proves more profitable to manipulate for the purposes of enlightenment, moral profit, and the accumulation of practical wisdom (i.e., to take the "humanities" approach) than to try and lay bare on the dissection table for the purpose of satisfying our curiosity.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That just sounds like an argument against Reductionism to me. Science does not have to be Reductionist. You can still apply "The Scientific Method" to complex problems.

    3. Cabbages of doom, it's often hard to do science without reductionism, as follows:

      Imagine that you have 100 simultaneous linear equations in 100 variables. You might be able to solve for each variable and estimate all 100 variables with great precision. But more likely the matrix will be ill-conditioned and some variables will be very important while others will not. You might be able to estimate the most important ones to pretty good precision and some of the others not at all.

      As you collect more data you get better at estimating the important variables, but the others don't improve much. You can use various statistical tricks.

      To predict 100 simultaneous equations you need 10,000 parameters. Perhaps you can infer them on theoretical grounds, but more likely they must be measured. The important ones must be measured very precisely. Once you have good estimates for your parameters then you can do experiments in which you carefully control 100 inputs and carefully measure 100 outputs.

      But were all those 10,000 relationships actually linear? Some of them might be nonlinear in important ways. That can be tested. But what if the nonlinearities in the relationship between variables #49 and #72 themselves vary in a nonlinear way depending on variable #81? Can you test everything?

      What people do instead is try to look for just the most important relationships, and treat everything else as random noise. We just can't handle the complexity of extremely complex problems. Reductionism provides a way to do science and stay reasonably sane.

    4. J Thomas, I agree with what you write. I am not sure that we have the same working definition of reductionism. Reductionism to me is not a case of abstracting things out to noise. It is the attempt to reduce everything to its simplest component parts and work out how each part works in isolation with the belief that this will enable you to understand the whole.

      Sometimes it is useful to ignore the underlying variables and just model an empirical distribution to "stay reasonably sane" as you put it. I would not describe this a reductionist approach. I'm not knocking reductionism - we certainly need it - but I would agree with the notion that there are limits to reductionism and to understand aspects of the behaviour of a system at one level does not necessarily require a full understanding of all the underlying layers.

  25. Larry: why are you ignoring the distinction between humanities (such as art and literature, which are not science and do not purport to be ways of knowing in your sense of the word), and social science (such as sociology, which is studied using both quantitative and qualitative scientific methods and is very much part of science)?

    1. As long as a discipline is actually discovering discovering knowledge (truth), I maintain that it is using the scientific approach. It doesn't matter whether it is quantitative or qualitative.

      What do you think all those graduate students in art history and English literature are doing if it's got nothing to doing with knowing?

    2. Larry, that is a very broad definition of science that not everyone, including Ms. Konnikova, needs to agree with. It's not that she's confused about what science is; it's that you and she define it differently.

      You will have to use the scientific approach, i.e. establish a 'truth', in order to demonstrate that you are not merely disagreeing over terminology, but that you are right and she is wrong.

  26. For example, let's say an English lit major wants to do a paper comparing Molly Bloom with other heroines of English literature in order to make the case that Molly is the first 'postmodern' female literary character. I have no idea if an English lit major would wish to do this, but for argument's sake. How will said major use science, rather than simply make an argument based on equal parts research (that's not science, that's looking things up and presenting them) and opinion?

    1. That sounds like an opinion rather than objective knowledge. Opinions are interesting and useful - and not all opinions are equally valid or supported - but they are not the same as knowledge. How, in your example, does one ascertain whether your English Lit major is right?

      (For English Lit, an informed opinion might be more interesting and valued than objective truth. I do not think the same could be said for psychology or many of the humanities. (Isn't English Lit one of the arts?))

    2. Cabbage, that is exactly the point I am making. Larry, above, has suggested that English lit majors are doing science in their study. I am countering this POV in exactly the terms you laid out.

    3. Not really. Larry qualified his statement thus: "As long as a discipline is actually [discovering] knowledge (truth), I maintain that it is using the scientific approach."

      In your example, the English Lit major is not "discovering knowledge (truth)", they are forming an opinion.

    4. So then you don't think that his follow up question -
      "What do you think all those graduate students in art history and English literature are doing if it's got nothing to doing with knowing?" -
      wasn't a leading question indicating that he thinks that it MUST have something to do with knowing?

    5. Well, the ones that ARE discovering knowledge are using a scientific approach. The ones that are not, are forming opinions, or sparking debates, or whatever English Lit students do. (I don't know, to be honest.)

      I see Larry's point as being that the only way to discover knowledge is through a scientific approach. Any English Lit students who are discovering knowledge are using a scientific approach. Whether one has to discover knowledge to get an English Lit qualification is another matter.

    6. cabbagesofdoom wrote "Whether one has to discover knowledge to get an English Lit qualification is another matter."

      That really is treading the line of academic arrogance. If the arts and the sciences share anything, it is such skills as collation, analysis, critical thinking and hypothesis creation.

      Your neat little phrase "discovering knowledge" is a simplistic one that doesn't do any favors to scientists or, of course, humanities researchers. It makes scientists sound like little boys out catching butterflies, and humanities folks like old ladies who stay inside tasting chocolates.

    7. Apologies if it comes across that way. I was using the term "discovering knowledge" in the way it had been previously declared (and not by me) in the comment that sparked these follow-up comments, i.e. "truth" - some kind of objective handle on ultimate reality.

      My comment about English Lit was from an explicitly stated position of ignorance: "whatever English Lit students do. (I don't know, to be honest.)" I do not know what English Lit majors do. Perhaps they can study the possible motives of an author? This would sound fair enough to me and be an interesting and worthwhile contribution to society but we can never know the motives of the author. It is interesting - and informed - opinion but it is not "knowledge" as defined. (I did not do the defining and will happily swap terms if you don't like it.) Perhaps they only deal with the objective reality of literature. I don't know but it is another mattter, i.e. not important for the argument being presented.

      I am not sure what has caused you to approach the comment with such hostility in this instance but don't read too much into it.

      It is academic arrogance only in the sense that I think that science is the only way to "discover knowledge" under this definition of knowledge. As I have stated several times, I do not consider this to be the only worthwhile academic or artistic pursuit. Calling something an Art does not belittle it. (For me, at least.)

  27. There are so many conceptions of what is and what isn't a scientific method on this very thread alone that it's no wonder poor Ms. Konnikova is 'confused'!

    A cheetah stalks a zebra. It has to calculate, as precisely as it can, how near it can get to its prey, and make a good run at it, knowing that it will tucker out before the zebra. According to Shaun, this is akin to using the scientific method, and if the cheetah didn't use it, it would be dead from starvation.

    A skilled painter experiments with different colors, eventually coming up with exactly the right ones he needs to both accurately and beautifully capture the backlighting on a porcelain vase he is painting. He now 'knows' how to paint that portion of the painting, and presumably create the same effect in future paintings. This is science, but the result, the painting itself, is not. Correct?

    An English Lit major is writing a comparative paper on Molly Bloom and Hester Prynne, in order to establish her contention that Hester is the more 'modern' character. Some of what she does to create this paper is science (the research, the comparative analysis, etc.) while the final result itself is not. Yes or no?

    A Hindu acolyte calculates that he will need to meditate at least two or three more years in order to free his mind from the illusion of manifest reality and begin to grasp Truth. He bases this calculation on: his guru's opinion, his own assessment of the progress he has made thus far, and the teachings of the Vedas, which he has studied for many years. This has nothing to do with science, because Larry doesn't believe in it.

    I think that's where we are now. I think I'm starting to make sense of all this. :)

    1. There are so many conceptions of what is and what isn't a scientific method on this very thread alone that it's no wonder poor Ms. Konnikova is 'confused'!

      All she had to do was say, "Here's how I define science and here's why research in the humanities doesn't qualify as science, in my opinion."

      We can read between the lines and deduce that what she means by "science" has something to do with using statistics and mathematics. She seems to have a definition of science that excludes qualitative work.

      If she had been explicit in her article we would be discussing her definition of science and tons of people would be telling her that her definition is "non-standard."

    2. You want to know why Konnikova most likely never defines "science" in her article, Larry?

      She is responding to other researchers' use of methods that they call "scientific" and the way she perceives how such research is valued with respect to older, "non-scientific" methods. For that purpose, and that purpose alone, she does not need (nor does she need to provide) a definition of "science"; she only needs to consider how the label of "science" or "scientific" is used to convey the prestige of different methods, and she does a excellent job of providing examples of the prestige that "'scientific' methods" confer on research in the humanities and social sciences.

  28. Whether Larry believes in it or not is not the point. The Hindu acolyte is not being scientific because it is all based on faith and opinion. Of course, if the teachings of Vedas have been scientifically tested then using them as the basis for calculations would be justified. If not, it is faith, pure and simple. He is also apparently not considering the alternative hypothesis that manifest reality is not an illusion and that the "Truth" he will find is an illusion.

    The cheetah thing is interesting. I would say that inasmuch that the cheetah is attempting to form an accurate picture of the world - and its ancestors would probably have been selected to form an accurate picture - it is doing something akin to science, yes. It is doing its best - albeit subconsciously - to form an objective view of reality. We could, in principle, test the cheetah's success and work out if it was right - there is an objective reality here to be found.

    In your arts cases, there is no objective reality at the end to be found and no way to test whether they are right. (Unless the artist is trying to invoke a specific measurable/testable response from his audience, I suppose.) So, no, they are not science. I don't think the conceptions of science are that different, although there is always like to be a bit of disagreement around the edges.

    The crucial thing really is what did Ms. Konnikova mean by science? From the article, she seems to mean it must be quantifiable and reductionist, which is not true. She also seems a bit obsessed with the idea of "hard facts" and that the "hard sciences" want things to be neat and tidy. (Perhaps she has never studied biology - for it is far from neat and tidy.) She does have a few good arguments buried in there but, actually, they seem to be crying out for a more scientific approach, not less:

    "We’re held back by those biases that plague almost all attempts to quantify the qualitative, selection on the dependent variable and post hoc hypotheses and explanations. We look at instances where the effect exists and posit a cause—and forget all the times the exact same cause led to no visible effect, or to an effect that was altogether different."

    What she is really saying is not that psychology is not a science but that much of the "science" done in the name of psychology is bad or flawed.

    1. I hope it is clear that I wrote that last post partially tongue in cheek, particularly regarding the cheetah and the acolyte. I thought it would be somewhat ironic to come to the conclusion that the cheetah was more scientific than the mystic. :)

      Nevertheless, I am not one to lump all religious disciplines in to one pile, call it woo and dismiss it. From my understanding of ancient Hindu mysticism, it was a sort of precursor of what we call science today. The meditators really did check and verify their own experiences, both within the inner circle of advanced masters and as part of the tutelage they gave to novices. There were actual inner experiences, particularly related to light (but perhaps sound and scents as well), as well as the concomitant 'realizations', that were used to gauge progress. There were various criteria by which these experiences were considered authentic or not. These included the amount of time spent meditating in one particular session, the amount of years devoted to meditation, the meditator's account of the inner experiences, the insights gained while experiencing them, and the changes to the personality that resulted. One of the reasons that Zen monks ( a similar discipline ) would harass and challenge their devotees was exactly that. They were testing to see if the meditation had taken hold or not, if there was any carryover into their daily lives. A kind of 'science', if you will. And one that predates, and perhaps may even have influenced, the ancient Greeks.

    2. Cabbage, I'm going to tentatively disagree with you on a certain point, because I think it is possible that Jungian psychology falls somewhat outside the definitions you are utilizing. I really don't know enough about the psychology, or more specifically, the nature of the various criticisms leveled against it, to state this with assurance. But I am going to do a bit of research. :)

    3. Unfortunately, due to the number of trolls this site attracts, it was not entirely clear (to me) that it was tongue in cheek. The monk stuff is interesting and I think it could be classed as science, although I would argue that it only gives knowledge regarding the effects of meditation, not objective knowledge regarding "The Truth". Science is about the interpretation as well as the method.

      Would you care to venture which point, or is it too tentative at this stage? Judging by my friends who studied psychology at Uni, some of it is very much science and some of it is not - often to the frustration of those who want evidence-based opinions for stuff (as opposed to conjecture-based).

    4. well, still pretty tentative. Pretty much the foundations of his work, the archetypes, the collective unconscious, symbols. Did you know that he was an extraordinary artist, by the way? And that his "Red Book' is beautifully illustrated with his own paintings and calligraphy? He credits this book with being the source of 'everything else', meaning his theories.And this was a result of a sort of dream vision, stream of consciousness type mode of creating. Hardly scientific in the conventional sense. I think some people discredit his findings on that fact alone.

      But like I said, I'm not really sure how much follow-up and testing he and his followers subjected this, and other foundational aspects of his work, to. Whether or not they 'did the science'. This is what I want to look into when I have a bit of time.

  29. Would anyone care to address to address what Konnikova wrote rather than Larry's misrepresentations?

    How does using analytic techniques from mathematics and the hard sciences add to our knowedlge of the humanities?

    How does, for example, knowing which myths and legends are more likely to have been based on modern notions of social networks add to the knowledge of those myths and legends and the cultures that originated them in a way that is more valuable than the methods of literary criticism that have been used over the last 200 years?

    1. I think that Konnikova makes a number of points that are perfectly valid in isolation. What she is arguing against is bad science, though. (She should probably read Ben Goldacre's book. He covers ascertainment bias quite nicely in there but also why you ultimately need statistics.) The solution to her problems is not to reject all science but to increase the level of scientific thinking in the field such that the bad science is no longer done or published. (Having seen some "social sciences" seminars, it is clear that they are not trained to think like scientists and quite often - but not always! - handle the quantitative stuff badly. This seems to be the problem - not the attempt to be more quantitative.)

      If the field is substituting "quantitative" for "science" and "science" for "good" such that anything quantitative automatically becomes good (and anything not becomes bad) then I think this is a legitimate rant. To wrap it all up in terms of "science" versus "non-science" is not. Moving away from scientific thinking will only increase the amount of woolliness and ascertainment bias that Konnikova seems to object to. She is not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater, she is throwing away babies that are not even in the bath.