Tag Archive: theory

Provoking the ‘belief philosophers’

In upholding an objective third world [World 3] I hope to provoke those whom I call ‘belief philosophers’: those who, like Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, or Russell, are interested in our subjective beliefs, and their basis or origin. Against these belief philosophers I urge that our problem is to find better and bolder theories; and that critical pre­ference counts, but not belief. [107]

Nothing can be proved

The critical attitude, the tradition of free discussion of theories with the aim of discovering their weak spots so that they may be improved upon, is the attitude of reasonableness, of rationality. It makes far-reaching use of both verbal argu­ment and observation—of observation in the interest of argument, however. The Greeks’ discovery of the critical method gave rise at first to the mistaken hope that it would lead to the solution of all the great old problems; that it would establish certainty; that it would help to prove our theories, to justify them. But this hope was a residue of the dogmatic way of thinking; in fact nothing can be justified or proved (outside of mathematics and logic). The demand for rational proofs in science indicates a failure to keep distinct the broad realm of rationality and the narrow realm of rational certainty: it is an untenable, an unreasonable demand. [67]

Misguided “scientism”

Um den Gehalt dieser meiner Hauptthese und ihre Bedeutung für die Soziologie ein wenig anzudeuten, wird es zweck­mäßig sein, ihr gewisse andere Thesen einer weit verbreiteten und oft ganz unbewußt absorbierten Methodologie gegenüberzustellen.

Da ist zum Beispiel der verfehlte und mißverständliche methodologische Naturalismus oder Szientismus, der verlangt, daß die Sozialwissenschaften endlich von den Naturwissenschaften lernen, was wissenschaftliche Methode ist. Dieser verfehlte Naturalismus stellt Forderungen auf wie: Beginne mit Beobachtungen und Messungen; das heißt zum Bei­spiel, mit statistischen Erhebungen; schreite dann induktiv zu Verallgemeinerungen vor und zur Theorienbildung. Auf diese Weise wirst Du dem Ideal der wissenschaftlichen Objektivität näher kommen, soweit das in den Sozialwissen­schaften überhaupt möglich, ist. Dabei mußt Du Dir darüber klar sein, daß in den Sozialwissenschaften die Objektivität weit schwieriger zu erreichen ist (falls sie überhaupt zu erreichen ist) als in den Naturwissenschaften; denn Objektivität bedeutet Wertfreiheit, und der Sozialwissenschaftler kann sich nur in den seltensten Fällen von den Wertungen seiner eigenen Gesellschaftsschicht soweit emanzipieren, um auch nur einigermaßen zur Wertfreiheit und Objektivität vor­zudringen.

Meiner Meinung nach ist jeder der Sätze, die ich hier diesem verfehlten Naturalismus zugeschrieben habe, grund­falsch und auf ein Mißverständnis der naturwissenschaftlichen Methode begründet, ja geradezu auf einen Mythus – einen leider allzu weit verbreiteten und einflußreichen Mythus vom induktiven Charakter der naturwissenschaftlichen Methode und vom Charakter der naturwissenschaftlichen Objektivität. [83]

The problem is epistemology, not statistics

Significance tests have a role to play in social science research but their current widespread use in appraising theories is often harmful. The reason for this lies not in the mathematics but in social scientists’ poor understanding of the logical relation between theory and fact, that is, a methodological or epistemological unclarity. Theories entail observations, not conversely. Although a theory’s success in deriving a fact tends to corroborate it, this corroboration is weak unless the fact has a very low prior probability and there are few possible alternative theories. The fact of a nonzero difference or correlation, such as we infer by refuting the null hypothesis, does not have such a low probability because in social science everything correlates with almost everything else, theory aside. In the “strong” use of significance tests, the theory predicts a numerical point value, or narrow range, so the hypothesis test subjects the theory to a grave risk of being falsified if it is objectively incorrect. In general, setting up a confidence interval is preferable, being more informa­tive and entailing null hypothesis refutation if a difference falls outside the interval. Significance tests are usually more defensible in technological contexts (e.g., evaluating an intervention) than for theory appraisal. [393]

Scientism: slavishly aping a myth

But I should go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’: of trying to copy the method of natural science, not as it actually is, but as it is wrongly alleged to be. This alleged but non-existent method is that of collecting observations and then ‘drawing conclusions’ from them. It is slavishly aped by some historians who believe that they can collect documentary evidence which, corresponding to the observations of natural science, forms the ’empirical basis’ for their conclusions. …

Worse even than the attempt to apply an inapplicable method is the worship of the idol of certain or infallible or authoritative knowledge which these historians mistake for the ideal of science. Admittedly, we all try hard to avoid error; and we ought to be sad if we have made a mistake. Yet to avoid error is a poor ideal: if we do not dare to tackle problems which are so difficult that error is almost unavoidable, then there will be no growth of knowledge. In fact, it is from our boldest theories, including those which are erroneous, that we learn most. Nobody is exempt from making mistakes; the great thing is to learn from them. [186]

More falsificationism strawmen going up in flames

A second familiar approach from the same period is Karl Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ criterion, which fares no better. Apart from the fact that it leaves ambiguous the scientific status of virtually every singular existential statement, however well supported (e.g., the claim that there are atoms, that there is a planet closer to the sun than the Earth, that there is a missing link), it has the untoward consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just so long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came to pass) would cause them to change their minds. [121]

Popper on Duhem–Quine’s naive falsificationism

The falsifying mode of inference here referred to—the way in which the falsification of a conclusion entails the falsifi­cation of the system from which it is derived—is the modus tollens of classical logic. It may be described as follows:

Let p be a conclusion of a system t of statements which may consist of theories and initial conditions (for the sake of simplicity I will not distinguish between them). We may then symbolize the relation of derivability (analytical implication) of p from t by ‘t ➙ p’ which may be read: ‘p follows from t ’. Assume p to be false, which we may write ‘p’, to be read ‘not-p’. Given the relation of deducibility, t ➙ p, and the assumption p, we can then infer t  (read ‘not-t ’); that is, we regard t as falsified. If we denote the conjunction (simultaneous assertion) of two statements by putting a point between the symbols standing for them, we may also write the falsifying inference thus: ((t ➙ p).p) ➙ t , or in words: ‘If p is derivable from t, and if p is false, then t also is false’.

By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification.* With this is connected the following possibility: we may, in some cases, perhaps in consideration of the levels of universality, attribute the falsification to some definite hypothesis—for instance to a newly introduced hypothesis. This may happen if a well-corroborated theory, and one which continues to be further corroborated, has been deductively explained by a new hypothesis of a higher level. The attempt will have to be made to test this new hypothesis by means of some of its consequences which have not yet been tested. If any of these are falsified, then we may well attribute the falsification to the new hypothesis alone. We shall then seek, in its stead, other high-level generalizations, but we shall not feel obliged to regard the old system, of lesser generality, as having been falsified.

* Thus we cannot at first know which among the various statements of the remaining sub-system t ′ (of which p is not independent) we are to blame for the falsity of p; which of these statements we have to alter, and which we should retain. (I am not here discussing interchangeable statements.) It is often only the scientific instinct of the investigator (influenced, of course, by the results of testing and re-testing) that makes him guess which statements of t ′ he should regard as innocuous, and which he should regard as being in need of modification. Yet it is worth remembering that it is often the modification of what we are inclined to regard as obviously innocuous (because of its complete agreement with our normal habits of thought) which may produce a decisive advance. A notable example of this is Einstein’s modification of the concept of simultaneity. [55-6]

Better problems, closer to the truth

[T]heories are steps in our search for truth – or to be both more explicit and more modest, in our search for better and better solutions of deeper and deeper problems (where ‘better and better’ means, as we shall see, ‘nearer and nearer to the truth’). [154-5]

The mistaken theory of objectivity

No doubt the idea which inspires the inductive style—the idea of adhering strictly to the observed facts and of excluding bias and prejudice—is laudable. And no doubt those trained to write in this way are unaware that this laudable and apparently safe idea is itself the mistaken result of a prejudice—worse still, of a philosophical prejudice—and of a mistaken theory of objectivity. (Objectivity is not the result of disinterested and unprejudiced observation. Objectivity, and also unbiased observation, are the result of criticism, including the criticism of observational reports. For we cannot avoid or suppress our theories, or prevent them from influencing our observations; yet we can try to recognize them as hypotheses and to formulate them explicitly, so that they may be criticized.) [48]

Slaying the hydra of verisimilitude

In my view, trying to measure verisimilitude by counting a theory’s true or false consequences always missed the point. Every false theory has the same number (if we can really talk this way) of true and false consequences as every other. This is a consequence of the truth-functional nature of our logical connectives and the truth-functional definition of validity. But some false statements are still closer to the truth than others. [411]

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