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A Misguided Philosophy of Science

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Karl Popper, c1990 PrawfsBlawg: A Misguided Philosophy of Science:

During my first year as a economics graduate student, I spent at most two minutes thinking about the philosophy behind empirical work. On the first day of my year-long econometrics sequence, our professor quickly reminded us that hypotheses cannot be proven, only disproven. That was it. I don’t even think Karl Popper‘s name came up. This is simply not an issue that social scientists wrestle with. Which is a problem, since what we do is not what we think we do.

We think we are engaged in Popperian refutation. Popper’s theory is relatively simple to explain: Induction and confirmation are impossible, and all we can do is refute hypotheses. In other words, it is impossible to prove that all swans are white, no matter how many white swans I see. In fact, to Popper, each additional white swan provides no additional confirmation of that hypothesis. But all it takes is one black swan to refute the hypothesis.

The appeal of Popper’s apporach is that it avoids the problems of induction, known to us since the time of David Hume. Popper’s is a purely deductive logic. Our theory makes prediction X, we see that X is not so, so our theory is — and logically must be — wrong.

But the real problem for me is that the social sciences are not engaged in the Popperian endeavor. If nothing else, our theoretical models are incompatible with it. Compare criminology to physics. In criminology, we may be able to make a guess about the direction of the effect, but that is all: “more people in prison will lead to less crime” is the best we can do.

Physics produces genuinely testable predictions. The social sciences do not.

There is much more detail and exploration in the original post about the importance that bringing more meta-analysis or “evidence based” practices to the social sciences. His conclusion that more rigorous review is needed in the social sciences:

[O]ur failure to produce them is a fundamental epistemological failure. A single study can refute, but only an overview can confirm. And confirmation is what we do. The explosion in empirical work makes such overviews all the more important, since the larger the literature the harder it is to see the big picture, especially with an ever-growing pool of poorly-designed studies muddying the waters. Review essays are the very heart of empirical knowledge, and they should be treated as such.

An interesting and important beginning to looking into some of the more hidden recesses of the social sciences, which have always struck me as “trying too hard” to justify themselves as “real science,” and thus (at times, not always) tending to avoid self-reflection or analysis. I look forward to reading more on this topic.

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