Home > Uncategorized > The essence of scientific reasoning

The essence of scientific reasoning

from Lars Syll

dedIn deductive reasoning all knowledge obtainable is already latent in the postulates. Rigour is needed to prevent the successive inferences growing less and less accurate as we proceed. The conclusions are never more accurate than the data. In inductive reasoning we are performing part of the process by which new knowledge is created. The conclusions normally grow more and more accurate as more data are included. It should never be true, though it is still often said, that the conclusions are no more accurate than the data on which they are based.

R. A. Fisher

In science we standardly use a logically non-valid inference — the fallacy of affirming the consequent — of the following form: 

(1) p => q
(2) q

or, in instantiated form

(1) ∀x (Gx => Px)

(2) Pa

Although logically invalid, it is nonetheless a kind of inference — abduction — that may be factually strongly warranted and truth-producing.

holmes-quotes-about-holmesFollowing the general pattern ‘Evidence  =>  Explanation  =>  Inference’ we infer something based on what would be the best explanation given the law-like rule (premise 1) and an observation (premise 2). The truth of the conclusion (explanation) is nothing that is logicallygiven, but something we have to justify, argue for, and test in different ways to possibly establish with any certainty or degree. And as always when we deal with explanations, what is considered best is relative to what we know of the world. In the real world, all evidence is relational (evidence only counts as evidence in relation to a specific hypothesis) and has an irreducible holistic aspect. We never conclude that evidence follows from a hypothesis simpliciter, but always given some more or less explicitly stated contextual background assumptions. All non-deductive inferences and explanations are necessarily context-dependent.

If we extend the abductive scheme to incorporate the demand that the explanation has to be the best among a set of plausible competing potential and satisfactory explanations, we have what is nowadays usually referred to as inference to the best explanation.

In inference to the best explanation we start with a body of (purported) data/facts/evidence and search for explanations that can account for these data/facts/evidence. Having the best explanation means that you, given the context-dependent background assumptions, have a satisfactory explanation that can explain the evidence better than any other competing explanation — and so it is reasonable to consider the hypothesis to be true. Even if we (inevitably) do not have deductive certainty, our reasoning gives us a license to consider our belief in the hypothesis as reasonable.

Accepting a hypothesis means that you believe it does explain the available evidence better than any other competing hypothesis. Knowing that we — after having earnestly considered and analysed the other available potential explanations — have been able to eliminate the competing potential explanations, warrants and enhances the confidence we have that our preferred explanation is the best explanation, i. e., the explanation that provides us (given it is true) with the greatest understanding.

This, of course, does not in any way mean that we cannot be wrong. Of course, we can. Inferences to the best explanation are fallible inferences — since the premises do not logically entail the conclusion — so from a logical point of view, inference to the best explanation is a weak mode of inference. But if the arguments put forward are strong enough, they can be warranted and give us justified true belief, and hence, knowledge, even though they are fallible inferences. As scientists we sometimes — much like Sherlock Holmes and other detectives that use inference to the best explanation reasoning — experience disillusion. We thought that we had reached a strong conclusion by ruling out the alternatives in the set of contrasting explanations. But — what we thought was true turned out to be false.

That does not necessarily mean that we had no good reasons for believing what we believed. If we cannot live with that contingency and uncertainty, well, then we are in the wrong business. If it is deductive certainty you are after, rather than the ampliative and defeasible reasoning in inference to the best explanation — well, then get into math or logic, not science.

  1. December 30, 2018 at 9:43 am

    One of my undergraduate profs liked the marble-in-urn analogy: “There are more or less 100 marbles in an urn, some being white while others are red. Draw out 5 & make an inference about how many are red or white. Replace. Then draw out 10 & make an inference. Etc. up to, say, 25. What have we learned? What analytic tools do we need?”

  2. Frank Salter
    December 30, 2018 at 10:55 am

    Lars Syll’s analysis is based on his paper (Syll 2016) which contains the conclusions “Thus – in order to explain what happens in our world, we have to use a reasoning that logically is a
    fallacy.” In making this statement, he appears to be ignoring analysis from first principles. First principles analysis is the basis of most scientific quantitative analysis. The scientific understanding of first principles is that they are axioms of reality. They are NOT models. This is the major difference of understanding between science and economics. Then valid mathematical analysis produces relationships which are fully consistent with the empirical evidence.

    As economics seems to be locked into the fallacious belief that curve fitting will lead to valid theory, one must conclude that there will never be any valid theory. This conclusion is supported the the evidence that more than a hundred years of effort by many thousands of economists has produced NOT ONE valid theory. One would expect economists to recognise this and therefore follow the lead given be science and work from first principles analysis.

    Lars Pålsson Syll, “Deductivism – the fundamental flaw of mainstream economics”, real-world economics review, issue no. 74, 07 April 2016, pp. 20–41, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue74/Syll-Essay74.pdf

  3. Craig
    December 30, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    The real problem with science is its incompleteness. Its unwillingness, at this advanced stage of its technological expertise and advancement and yet unfortunate unwillingness and/or habituated inability….to integrate the existential reality of consciousness ITSELF into its method. Of course that would make it wisdom. The zen aphorism of “Wherever YOU go, there YOU…ARE…comes to mind.

    Doing that in the study of economics would probably be enough of a present time meditative switch away from mere and only mathematical and theoretical abstraction, that economists might generally perceive the significance of retail sale being the triple power point of the entire legitimate economic/productive process. And then be able to craft a set of policies and regulations around that insight that would implement a new paradigm.

  4. Rhonda Kovac
    December 30, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    “If [in science] we cannot live with .. contingency and uncertainty, well, then we are in the wrong business.”

    Sorry, but approximations, even close ones, don’t hack it. If I were on the Titanic after the iceberg hit, I wouldn’t find it reassuring that the hull was still 99% water-tight.

  5. December 30, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    Lars Syll’s reasoning in and of itself is valid, if society were embedded in the economy and/or an economy would purposelessly meander through space and time. In either case inductively exploring an unknowable in full economy is the only option open to us. I hold however, with Karl Polanyi btw, that our economy is embedded within society. And, as a human-made system with a purpose to society, is deductively knowable insofar it either conforms to that presupposed purpose or not. Human beings don’t devise purposeless systems. From this it follows that Lars Syll’s inductive analysis cannot support that the economy is human made. The question is, which point of view deserves the support of the heterodox community?

    • Craig
      December 30, 2018 at 7:58 pm

      The temporal universe flows freely and the economy is inextricably embedded within the temporal universe. If it does not flow freely, then it has elements that prevent it from being so. We have a monetary economy and money is the most salient and significant factor in it. The temporal universe being in such free flowing state/process it abhors a statistical equilibrium. All heterodox economists recognize that there is a scarcity of individual aggregate demand and they recommend and offer policies they think will remedy that scarcity. The problem is these policies are either one off (“a modern debt jubilee”) and/or think only filling the statistical gap between total costs and so prices and total individual aggregate demand is adequate policy. These balancing policy ideas, even if it is with additional monetary input, still have the stench of DSGE hanging around it.

      The free flowingness solution of course is CONTINUOUSLY filling the monetary gap to ABUNDANT overflowing with a high percentage discount/rebate policy tied to the terminal expression point of inflation and the terminal ending point of the entire economy, i.e. retail sale.

  6. January 1, 2019 at 9:21 am

    My position on science has not changed since we last discussed this. But I’ll take a different approach to presenting it. Science has many faces.

    Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. But neither the knowledge nor the process is static. The knowledge changes as we change how to observe the world. Knowledge is tied to what we observe, how we observe it, and what purpose we have in mind when we observe. The important thing is we try to allow the data to speak to us. To allow it to shine forth. We try not to speak for the data but from it. Science thus is also exciting, since it is discovery allowing us to link observations into an articulate (for the moment) story of actors and actions in many times and places. Most scientists are motivated not by wealth or power, but by the thrill of seeing or figuring out something that no one has before. Science is also useful. The knowledge generated by science is often dependable and valuable. It can be used to develop new technologies, treat diseases, and deal with many other sorts of problems. Science is ongoing. Science is continually reassessing its process and the accuracy of its facts about the world around us. Science will never be “finished.” Science is a global human endeavor. People all over the world participate in the process of science. We believe the earliest science was in ancient China and Egypt, and among Sumerians and Akkadians. About 5,000 BCE. But we must be careful not to mystify science behind abstractions and high-sounding elitism. In this vein science becomes an activity for the elites to further their ambitions. Science is at its heart experimental, involving hands-on trial-and-error actions rather than intellectualism. Benjamin Farrington warns us,

    In its origin science is not in fact so divorced from practical ends as histories have sometimes made out. Textbooks, right down from Greek times, have tended to obscure the empirical element in the growth of knowledge by their ambition of presenting their subjects in a logical orderly development. This is, perhaps, the best method of exposition; the mistake is to confuse it with a record of the genesis of theory. Behind Euclid’s definition of a straight line as “one that lies evenly between the points on it” one discerns the mason with his level.

    Much more of science comes from the worker at the bench and the craftsperson solving tangible problems than the elite scientist in the academy. Science can never be the source of “unchallengeable” knowledge, though portraying it so may please some scientists (e.g., physicists, chemists, mathematicians) who view their work and themselves as elites towering above the other sciences and particularly those people not involved in science. In 1903 – the era of relativity and quantum theory — it was two bicycle mechanics named Wright who gave the critical impulse to the science of aerodynamics. Not theoretical scientists of any sort. Science owes more of what it is to miners, masons, navigators, midwives, mechanics, armorers, bridge builders, etc. than to all the physicists, chemists, mathematicians, etc. who ever lived.

    • Frank Salter
      January 1, 2019 at 11:23 am

      May I add, science is a joint accumulative effort where the body of knowledge and understanding is continually reassessed against the empirical evidence. This is the essence of the scientific method.

      Economics is almost the obverse. The only testing against the empirical evidence is to judge how well the curve fitting has been carried out. Hypotheses are never rejected when they fail to match the empirical evidence. This rejection of the scientific method appears to be taught as the appropriate mode of economic thinking. Why!!??

      • January 1, 2019 at 12:52 pm

        Frank, I agree that economists seem to have little interest in anything other than their own conjecturing when it comes to their “science.” This is not unique in science, however. Even physicists do it regularly.

        Part of the problem is that the “reassessment” process you mention is difficult to make work in practice. In fact, the reassessment isn’t so much that as a construction of a new scientific understanding. In the words of physicist Andrew Pickering’s book, “Constructing Quarks,” “I try to avoid the circular idiom of naive realism whereby the product of a historical process, in this case the perceived reality of quarks, is held to determine the process itself. The view taken here is that the reality of quarks was the upshot of particle physicists’ practice, and not the reverse: hence the title of the book, Constructing Quarks.” … “the emphasis is on practice.”

      • Frank Salter
        January 1, 2019 at 1:39 pm

        Ken, I would suggest a different stress to that which I think you are doing. There will be individual scientists who will act in error for a variety of reasons including deliberate misrepresentation, but it is the body of the scientific community who will establish that which can not be invalidated. I was hoping that would be how economists would examine my paper, “Transient Development”. The analysis is fully consistent with the empirical evidence, but detractors claim it can not be true but a variety of spurious reasons.

      • January 2, 2019 at 2:23 am

        Frank, you are correct. Scientists establish what all can and should accept as fact via consensus. But it’s consensus about practice, not each fact or experiment. You should also note that when Pickering and others who study science use the term construction, they are attempting to bring our attention to how both science and science facts are created – they are constructed. In the case of Quarks, for example, high-energy physicists constructed them over a 50-year period. Pickering’s book is an attempt to describe the history of the construction process. It’s a fascinating story. And, being a story about humans, it includes errors, some massive, falsehoods, and delusions.

      • Frank Salter
        January 1, 2019 at 1:41 pm

        Correction to last line “… for a variety of spurious reasons”

      • Craig
        January 1, 2019 at 6:25 pm

        What is being discussed here is the need for a new economic philosophy AND even more importantly….a new scientific philosophy. I have posted the following ascending scale of scientific actions here several times: research/data gathering, theorizing, philosophy. paradigm perception/change/the deeper, fuller more complete understanding AKA wisdom.

        I have heard Steve Keen, who I consider probably the most astute economist on the planet, say we need a new economic philosophy….and then go right back to posting mathematics until in his own words MEGO (my eyes glaze over) occurs. And there of course isn’t anything wrong with research/data gathering and theorizing….it’s just that it’s important to know when to go to a more integrative level of understanding.

        We need to go from the invalidated DSGE to “a philosophy of the higher disequilibrium” and then paradigm change. And we need to go from the intellectually delicious and necessary mode of inquiry of Science ONLY to the science inclusive and more mentally integrative level of wisdom.

      • January 2, 2019 at 2:27 am

        Craig, interesting. But let me ask you about your ascending scale of scientific actions. Have you observed “scientists” taking these actions? And if so, how and why did they create them and how do they use them. In other words, is this their ascending scale of actions or yours? That answer can be determined only by observing, for example biologists or sociologists. And, secondly if this is the observable process, what are the results? What do scientists construct by using it?

      • Craig
        January 2, 2019 at 7:18 am

        Actually I left out a prior action in that ascending scale, hypothesis, which is the beginning of the scientific method/process. It’s obvious that research/data gathering is science’s next step which is combinatory/integrative, then theorizing which is organizing data and observations in coherent ways like capitalism or socialism in pursuit of a further mental and logical integration of ideas, i.e. a philosophy like free markets, monetarily re-distributive and structurally manipulated markets or Direct Distributism.

        The hard sciences often get to the philosophical level. Economics rarely has and as we see is now in the state of iconoclasm/de-construction. Paradigm changes of course are extremely rare and are the next to highest level of integration of only the truths in opposites. In fact a paradigm itself is an integrative construct of the opposites of a single concept that fits almost seamlessly within the generalized structures of the old paradigm and yet creates an entirely new pattern whose character is transformed. So this IS observably the scientific process.

        Science is (generally) a trinity-truth fragmenting-process (hypothesis, the dualistic process of assessing truthfulness or falsity of data and theories). Wisdom is a trinity-unity-oneness-wholeness-process (the integration of a bothness/duality to the point of a thirdness greater oneness) which utilizes and includes the scientific method but again is ultimately an integrative process.

        So the observable process of science is a fragmentary determination of truths that mostly stops at the theorizing level due to the increasingly integrative necessity to move up the scale to philosophy combined with its (science’s) habituation to doubt. Wisdom being an entirely integrative process can continue to ascend the scale unless it degenerates into orthodoxy/dogma at which time it falls back into dualism. If it becomes aware of and relates to the pinnacle concept of wisdom, grace, it can ascend to the level of paradigm and even to the beatific level of ethic/zeitgeist.

        Scientists, philosophers and paradigm perceivers/seekers of wisdom all construct realities. It’s just that the latter two generally construct and create higher integrations thereof.

      • January 2, 2019 at 1:10 pm

        Craig, nothing about science is obvious till people do it. I don’t know what you mean that hard science often gets to the philosophical level. I know many “hard” scientists. Most despise philosophy and philosophers even more so. You should consider the history of the term “hard science.” It was invented by physicists as an insult to the so called “soft” sciences, including biology, geology, and all the “social or behavioral” sciences. In terms of measurement most scientific data is ordinal or interval, with large parts of physics and chemistry at the interval level. Recognizing of course that all measurements are performed with imperfect instruments and include errors. Finally, Craig, the entire notion of science you present is just wrong-headed in terms of empirical data. I’ve never seen or heard any scientist focus on truth in her/his work, and certainly not in the results of that work. It almost sounds as if you’re using Calculus when you speak of integrations. If you’re speaking of integrating the various forms of knowledge involved in scientific work, then I’ve met or read few scientists who carry this through. For example, most “hard” scientists never even consider the history or sociology of what they do and even fewer spend time looking back on their work to identify how it was carried out. For these scientists, science is an elite calling that only the “smartest people in the room” can perform. Many physicists are self-absorbed and arrogant, with the level of each declining as we move from physical scientists to social scientists, with geologists often the least self-absorbed and arrogant.

      • Craig
        January 2, 2019 at 7:23 pm

        What you describe is rigidly orthodox, exclusionary and IMO stupid science.

        “I know many “hard” scientists. Most despise philosophy and philosophers even more so.”

        To their detriment and to the further acculturation of orthodoxy and it’s inevitable personal result if unchecked by wisdom…arrogance. The reason they despise philosophy is because they’re probably only focusing on the ORTHODOX variety which becomes the withdrawing trap of sophistry….not wisdom which is the integration of opposites like the integration of the mental and temporal which is consciousness itself.

        “For these scientists, science is an elite calling that only the “smartest people in the room” can perform. Many physicists are self-absorbed and arrogant, with the level of each declining as we move from physical scientists to social scientists, with geologists often the least self-absorbed and arrogant.”

        Precisely as I have just described ORTHODOX science.

        As I pointed out in my prior post science and wisdom are complementary modes of inquiry, and yet science is but a subset within wisdom.

        Anyone who has been educated is habituated to orthodoxy, while true education, which is wisdom, is the first step toward innovation, new insight and ultimately paradigm change.

      • January 3, 2019 at 11:33 am

        Craig, correct. Many scientists are orthodox, exclusionary, and at times very stupid. As one chemist put it to me, what do philosophers do but pontificate? Got an answer for him? Craig, you’ll need to do a lot more that “pontificate” on this blog to change scientists. Science and scientists (hard and soft) have changed a great deal since the 1950s. Mostly as the result of broader minded members of their own discipline such as Michael Polanyi, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Harry Collins, Andrew Pickering, S. Barry Barnes, Michele Callon, etc. The elitist image of science is changing. Which is creating problems because of the attacks on climate science. Elite defenses of climate change appear necessary to many (citizens mingling in things they simply cannot understand) but are immediately attacked as signs of the corruption and lying of scientists. They’ve revealed that science has never been an elite activity. That involvement of ordinary citizens has benefited not harmed science. And that science is not, never has been about finding truth. How would you like to change this “paradigm” that began emerging in the early 1960s?

      January 1, 2019 at 8:44 pm

      reply to Ken Zimmerman I think your short description of what science is, could do a great deal to help students and the public to understand that the science that you describe is not only a way of thinking and understanding the world around them, but they are not ignored in the conversation.

      • January 2, 2019 at 2:38 am

        Edward, students and the public are not only not ignored, many of them are directly involved in the construction of science and science facts. And many more could be if they choose to be.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.