Tag Archive: method

The ‘scientism’ smear

The charge levelled at the New Godless is that, with their rigorous reasoning, testing and experimentation, they are making a religion out of the scientific method. “It’s an all-purpose, wild-card smear,” retorts Dennett. “It’s the last refuge of the sceptic. When someone puts forward a scientific theory that they really don’t like, they just try to discredit it as ‘scientism’. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.”

What argument can do

No argument can force us to accept the truth of any belief. But a valid deductive argument can force us to choose be­tween the truth of its conclusion on the one hand and the falsity of its premises on the other. [10]

The relativity of proof

Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can there­fore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true provided the prem­ises are true. [ch. 11, 260]

The evolutionary character of social engineering

The political artist clamours, like Archimedes, for a place outside the social world on which he can take his stand, in order to lever it off its hinges. But such a place does not exist; and the social world must continue to function during any reconstruction. This is the simple reason why we must reform its institutions little by little, until we have more experience in social engineering.

This leads us to the more important second point, to the irrationalism which is inherent in radicalism. In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. [ch. 9, 181]

Piecemeal social experiments

Such arguments in favour of Utopian engineering exhibit a prejudice which is as widely held as it is untenable, namely, the prejudice that social experiments must be on a ‘large scale’, that they must involve the whole of society if they are to be carried out under realistic conditions. But piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic con­ditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole. Even a man who opens a new shop, or who reserves a ticket for the theatre, is carrying out a kind of social experiment on a small scale; and all our knowledge of social conditions is based on experience gained by making experiments of this kind. … But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time. For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions. And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of a gravity that must endanger the will to future reforms. … But the piecemeal method permits repeated experiments and continuous readjustments. In fact, it might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes. [ch. 9, 176-7]

The ethics of solving society’s problems

I wish to outline another approach to social engineering, namely, that of piecemeal engineering. It is an approach which I think to be methodologically sound. The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of search­ing for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good. …

In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage isnot very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial. But if it is easier to reach a reasonable agreement about existing evils and the means of combating them than it is about an ideal good and the means of its realization, then there is also more hope that by using the piecemeal method we may get over the very greatest prac­tical difficulty of all reasonable political reform, namely, the use of reason, instead of passion and violence, in executing the programme. There will be a possibility of reaching a reasonable compromise and therefore of achieving the im­provement by democratic methods. [ch. 9, 171-3]

The aim of society

[W]e should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political ob­ligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity? And in order to find out what our fundamental political demands are, we may ask: Why do we prefer living in a well-ordered state to living without a state, i.e. in anarchy? This way of asking our question is a rational one. It is a question which a technologist must try to answer before he can proceed to the construction or reconstruction of any political institution. For only if he knows what he wants can he decide whether a certain institution is or is not well adapted to its function. [ch. 6, 119-20]

Fisher on Bayesianism

[A]dvocates of inverse probability seem forced to regard mathematical probability, not as an objective quantity mea­sured by observable frequencies, but as measuring merely psychological tendencies, theorems respecting which are useless for scientific purposes. [6-7]

Fisher on significance tests

In considering the appropriateness of any proposed experimental design, it is always needful to forecast all possible results of the experiment, and to have decided without ambiguity what interpretation shall be placed upon each one of them. Further, we must know by what argument this interpretation is to be sustained. …

It is open to the experimenter to be more or less exacting in respect of the smallness of the probability he would require before he would be willing to admit that his observations have demonstrated a positive result. It is obvious that an experiment would be useless of which no possible result would satisfy him. Thus, if he wishes to ignore results having probabilities as high as 1 in 20—the probabilities being of course reckoned from the hypothesis that the phenomenon to be demonstrated is in fact absent … . It is usual and convenient for the experimenters to take 5 per cent. as a standard level of significance, in the sense that they are prepared to ignore all results which fail to reach this standard, and, by this means to eliminate from further discussion the greater part of the fluctuations which chance causes have intro­duced into their experimental results. No such selection can eliminate the whole of the possible effects of chance co­incidence, and if we accept this convenient convention, and agree that an event which would occur by chance only once in 70 trials is decidedly “significant”, in the statistical sense, we thereby admit that no isolated experiment, how­ever significant in itself, can suffice for the experimental demonstration of any natural phenomenon; for the “one chance in a million” will undoubtedly occur, with no less and no more than its appropriate frequency, however surprised we may be that it should occur to us. In order to assert that a natural phenomenon is experimentally demonstrable we need, not an isolated record, but a reliable method of procedure. In relation to the test of significance we may say that a pheno­menon is experimentally demonstrable when we know how to conduct an experiment which will rarely fail to give us a statistically significant result. [12-4]

So you did one study? Do some more.

If one in twenty does not seem high enough odds, we may, if we prefer it, draw the line at one in fifty (the 2 per cent. point), or one in a hundred (the 1 per cent. point). Personally, the writer prefers to set a low standard of significance at the 5 per cent. point, and ignore entirely all results which fail to reach this level. A scientific fact should be regarded as experimentally established only if a properly designed experiment rarely fails to give this level of significance. The very high odds sometimes claimed for experimental results should usually be discounted, for inaccurate methods of esti­mating error have far more influence than has the particular standard of significance chosen. [504-5]

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