Home > Uncategorized > How economic orthodoxy protects its dominant position

How economic orthodoxy protects its dominant position

from Lars Syll

John Bryan Davis (2016) has offered a persuasive account of the way an economic orthodoxy protects its dominant position. Traditional ‘reflexive domains’ for judging research quality — the theory-evidence nexus, the history and philosophy of economics — are pushed aside. Instead, research quality is assessed through journal ranking systems. This is highly biased towards the status quo and reinforces stratification: top journals feature articles by top academics at top institutions, top academics and institutions are those who feature heavily in top journals.

mainstreampluralismBecause departmental funding is so dependent on journal scores, career advancement is often made on the basis of these rankings — they are not to be taken lightly. It is not that competition is lacking, but it is confined to those who slavishly accept the paradigm, as defined by the gatekeepers — the journal editors. In this self-referential system it is faithful adherence to a preconceived notion of ‘good economics’ that pushes one ahead.

Robert Skidelsky 


The only economic analysis that mainstream economists accept is the one that takes place within the analytic-formalistic modeling strategy that makes up the core of mainstream economics. All models and theories that do not live up to the precepts of the mainstream methodological canon are pruned. You’re free to take your models — not using (mathematical) models at all is considered totally unthinkable — and apply them to whatever you want — as long as you do it within the mainstream approach and its modeling strategy.

If you do not follow that particular mathematical-deductive analytical formalism you’re not even considered doing economics. ‘If it isn’t modeled, it isn’t economics.’

That isn’t pluralism.

That’s a methodological reductionist straightjacket.

  1. March 29, 2021 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for this. So who appoints the Journal Editors? Do they have Advisory Boards? Should we name them and target them, seeking change? We may be talking about a core group of less than 20 people.

  2. March 29, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    The current system will probably have to implode on itself (maybe multiple times) before the method of analysis changes.

  3. Ellen Russell
    March 29, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Are you referring to
    Cartwright, Nancy, and John Bryan Davis. “Economics as science.” Who Runs the Economy?. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016. 43-55.?

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    March 29, 2021 at 11:05 pm

    Orthodoxy works the same in a lot of areas. In Physics the fight still rages between pre-Einsteinian and post-Einsteinian science. This mostly is the struggle between ‘common sense’ physics and ‘strange’ physics (quantum physics, new force and particle physics, complexity, physics and human consciousness, the pluriverse, etc.) The latter is replacing the former, slowly. But replacement is happening. It has been happening for over 100 years. In Geology and Geophysics the stationary/stable Earth has almost been replaced by the active and ever changing Earth over the last 100-150 years. Including plate tectonics (continents floating on liquid mass). In the social sciences the older notions of social sciences that look like and perform like the other sciences (e.g., physical sciences) is now almost wiped out. Replacing it is the notion of social sciences as the efforts to examine the human creations of society and culture recognizing that these efforts are also part of the same cultures and societies they study and studying them directly effects them, sometimes profoundly.

    Long story, short, struggles in the sciences to call the shots are not new. Nor are they all good or bad. They help provide the dynamism and community creativity that make science work. But at the same time too much conflict or control of a part of science by one set of concepts can not only harm and hamper science but threaten human welfare.

    • pfeffertag
      March 30, 2021 at 12:49 am

      “In the social sciences the older notions of social sciences that look like and perform like the other sciences (e.g., physical sciences) is now almost wiped out.”

      Well, except for economics which continues its hypothetico-deductive program.

      As for the other social sciences, it stayed at the “notion” level; they never actually gave standard science a try. They get accused of trying science and finding it didn’t work but they never gave it more than lip-service—and that only in a few instances.

      I doubt there is a single case (outside economics) where hypothetico-deductive science was tried. Instead researchers looked to reality—and there’s no doubt about it: that didn’t work.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 30, 2021 at 5:22 am

        I am not certain what meaning you give hypothetico-deductive science but in terms of the model of science that came over from physics, at least two social sciences not only applied it but helped change it. One of the founders of the first modern social science, sociology reinvented scientific method for sociology. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) invented positivism. Comte defined sociology as a positive science. Positivism is the search for “invariant laws of the natural and social world.” Comte identified three essential methods for discovering these invariant laws, observation, experimentation, and comparison.

        Sociologist Max Webber and social philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey invented the other form of early sociology, Verstehen sociology. The “interpretive or participatory” examination of social phenomena. Rooted in the analysis of social action it is sometimes referred to as antipositivism to emphasize it was established as an alternative to prior sociological positivism and economic determinism. In anthropology, verstehen has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture attempts to relate to it and understand it. Verstehen is now seen as a concept and a method central to a rejection of positivist social science (although Weber appeared to think that the two could be united). Verstehen refers to imagining an understanding of the meaning of action from the actor’s point of view. It is entering into the shoes of the other via imagination. Adopting this research stance requires treating the actor as a subject, rather than an object of one’s observations. It also implies that unlike objects in the natural world human actors and cultures are not simply the product of the pulls and pushes of external forces. Humans are seen to create the world by organizing their own understanding of it and giving it meaning. To do research on actors without considering the meanings they attribute to their actions or environment is to treat them like objects.

        Over the years each of these approaches has influenced work in every area of social science.

        Each of these social science approaches sounds like science to me.

      • Meta Capitalism
        March 30, 2021 at 6:11 am

        I doubt there is a single case (outside economics) where hypothetico-deductive science was tried. Instead researchers looked to reality—and there’s no doubt about it: that didn’t work. ~ pfeffertag
        In the end, Newton taught, one should always prefer principles gained by induction from observation (Iliffe, 2003, p. 272). Methodologically, Newton arguably followed the Galilean method, which combined the kind of induction that was proposed by the followers of Paracelsus and the Baconians, rather than the formal-deductive method that was at the base of Descartes’s thinking. Moreover, Newton’s writing had a provisional tone, one that strongly suggested science was an ongoing, never-ending project. He wrote famously that “to explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you” (quoted by Iliffe, 2003, p. 273). He thus helped establish an important principle, namely that scientific knowledge is defeasible, subject to revision and challenge when new and better evidence becomes available. (A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Graz Schumpeter Lectures)” by Joel Mokyr, https://a.co/fXyxuPw )

        The term “hypothetico-deductive science” is polysyllabic blather without context and meaningful definitions. Mere triviality cloaked in polysyllables is dogmatic hot air and ideology and scientism. Whatever does pfeffertag mean by “hypothetico-deductive science”?
        When scientists observe the real world (reality) and want to ask questions about it they test their ideas of causation against reality via the use of hypotheses and controlled experiments. But humans and society are not like particles in physic or rats in biology. Kay describes well the limitations of behavior economics too. There are limitations on what kinds of “experiments” and be run. Ken notes participant observation. Such are the limitations of social science it seems.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 30, 2021 at 11:58 am

        Meta, you got it. The ‘real’ world of the co-subjects of research of social sciences is the cultural world within which their lives are framed as well as their personal versions of that world. I do not see this as a limitation. I see it as social scientists carrying out their mission. Also, we must give up the notion of science as a ‘members only’ club. Science is a big house with lots of rooms. There are many forms of science and many ways to carry it out. This may make it more difficult to evaluate the worth of science work, but it also makes that work more interesting and, in the end, more informative.

  5. Gerald Holtham
    March 30, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    The following question is not rhetorical. I am not well-read in anthropology. How far does anthropology attempt to find or make cross-cultural generalizations? I understand Ken’s point about the use of imagination to arrive at an understanding of the motives and practices of people in a given culture. I can see that that sort of imaginative identification with the people being studied enables you to “understand” them at a deeper level, in some sense. But are you tempted to say things like: people in culture of type X tend to have institutions of type Y, or people subject to scarcities that enforce an economic system of type A will tend to have a culture with characteristic B? Economics does not just attempt to understand a given economy, though that is a worthy and important enough exercise. It also attempts to make higher level generalisations about economic life which will apply in economies with many differences of detail. There is, of course, no guarantee that the search for such generalisations will be successful but it is a different sort of exercise from more particular studies.
    Economics has gone too far, in my opinion, in its quest for “generality”. Complete generality in social studies usually implies vacuity. Still, the search for principles with some degree of generality is an important characteristic of the subject. For me nothing much better has been written on this than H.A.Simon’s great book “The science of the artificial”.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 31, 2021 at 5:26 am

      Gerald, first Anthropologists attempt to enter another culture with no preconceptions about that culture. Of course, this is impossible in practice, but it is a mind set to arrange one’s expectations about one’s own actions and to reflect on one’s actions. After some time observing, as the anthropologist’s understanding of the culture grows the anthropologist does what all people have done since they evolved on the planet. She begins to imagine more details about future actions and conversations, and responses to both. She uses these to test further actions, questions, and responses. It is a lot like socialization. The process in which a person is brought into society and takes on the values, norms, and expectations of that society. This can be a powerful experience as conflicts develop with the anthropologists’ native culture. Anthropologists in training spend a great deal of time with their advisors learning to deal with the consequences of participant observation. Both for anthropologists and the society being observed.

      As to generalizations, anthropologists do not believe they are possible. This is an insight gained from communal experience. The experience of studying and observing literally hundreds of cultures. At one point anthropologists generalized that culture was a given in every part of Sapiens. But even that generalization has now been questioned. With some anthropologists questioning if that generalization is not imposed by modern day observers. Anthropologists have also seen the great harm (intentional and not) done to some communities through generalizations. As one anthropologist friend puts it, “generalization is the worst sort of cultural arrogance, and extremely destructive to boot.”

      There are of course many anthropologists who write and speak about general interest subjects based on their anthropology work. For example, Ruth Benedict (The Races of Mankind), Laura Nader (Contrarian Anthropology), Eduardo Kohn (How Forests Think Toward an anthropology Beyond the Human), Rebecca Bryant, Daniel M. Knight (The Anthropology of the Future), Bruno Latour (An inquiry into modes of existence: an anthropology of the moderns)

      “Economics does not just attempt to understand a given economy, though that is a worthy and important enough exercise. It also attempts to make higher level generalisations about economic life which will apply in economies with many differences of detail. There is, of course, no guarantee that the search for such generalisations will be successful but it is a different sort of exercise from more particular studies.” First, I cannot see how such generalizations can be drawn unless one uses a beginning frame. For the standard economics works I have read, this frame is that of capitalist or socialist economics, and a few variations of these. Generalizations cannot begin from nothing. And then there is the notion of hierarchy – higher level generalizations. What does that even mean?

  6. pfeffertag
    March 30, 2021 at 11:56 pm

    I don’t disagree with anything you say except the first sentence and the last. I have a stricter view of “science”. You had mentioned “social sciences that look like and perform like the other sciences (e.g., physical sciences)” and that is the science I am thinking of, the sort of knowledge that got under way with Galileo and Newton, the sort that can be tested and corrected. It is the sort that works, that has produced the material world we live in today.

    I was actually thinking of Comte when I wrote that post and I later reflected that my “lip-service” was not quite right. What I had in mind was that a few people expressed a wish for science, a longing for it. Said Comte, “there is no chance of order and agreement but in subjecting social phenomena, like all others, to invariable natural laws.”

    Few said it but no doubt many wished it. However no one figured out how to do it or even claimed to have done it. “Science” was claimed by followers of Marx and Freud but that was politics and enthusiasm, not science. Popper sorted them out.

    On the other hand many have claimed that science has failed when applied to society. I say it can’t have failed because no one has tried it. I don’t agree that the scientific method “came over from physics” as you put it (except to economics). The standard “hypothetico-deductive” approach is to hypothesise a relationship between two or more idealised concepts and deduce some testable consequences from it. Outside of economics this has not been the practice in social science. No question though: what social researchers have been doing for the last hundred years has failed. Only economics has built a body of theory.

    “Comte identified three essential methods for discovering these invariant laws, observation, experimentation, and comparison.”

    So people thought in his day and for long afterward. The first item is just wrong. That’s not how it works; observation will never build science theory. Observation reveals a flat earth—Weber’s “ideal-types” look quaint today. In social science the relentless, century-long attempt to observe reality without theory has produced, at best, a few factoids. Think “nudges” and behavioural economics.

    Verstehen is far more talked about than used. If Weber thought it could be united with science, so do I. But I don’t think anyone else does; Verstehen is generally held to be in conflict with science—which is weird because economics actually does it. As you say, the Verstehen approach considers the thoughts (understandings, orientations, intentions) of the actors. This is precisely what economics does in assuming self-interest. At the same time economic theory adopts the standard science approach of hypothesising interrelations between idealised concepts and deducing conclusions. The testability of the conclusions is debatable but economics, as theorised for a couple of centuries, does unite Verstehen and hypothetico-deductive theory.

    Given that economics is the only social science to have created a body of theory, and given the extraordinary success of natural science, the logical strategy to end the millennia-old lack of theory in the other social sciences is to follow suit. That is, in order to transcend the literary appreciation of society and discover invariant laws, hypothesise relationships between subjective views and make deductions from them with which to experiment and compare with reality.

  7. pfeffertag
    March 31, 2021 at 3:02 am

    Whoops—the above is in response to Ken Zimmerman at March 30, 2021 at 5:22 am.

    The term “hypothetico-deductive” is stock standard in philosophy. I did not realise it was confusing. Does the above make it plain? It pretty much is what it says: you state a hypothetical relationship and deduce some consequences which, hopefully, you can test.

    For example the force of gravity is given by multiplying the two masses together and dividing by the square of the distance between them: F=m1m2/d/d. You can then predict positions of heavenly bodies and check by looking and by timing orbits.

    That formula applies to two perfectly spherical bodies of perfectly even density which have no other masses gravitationally influencing them. These conditions do not exist in reality; the concepts m1, m2, d, in the formula are “idealised.” Idealisation has been explicitly recognised for well over 100 years.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 31, 2021 at 6:06 am

      Let me explain how I see science. Science began when humans first walked the surface of the planet. Specifically, the “hypothetico-deductive” science you mention. Humans have been imagining hypotheses based on experience (formally: observation) since the species’ beginning. Otherwise, it is unlikely our species would have survived. Humans have no physical survival advantages. The two advantages that improved Sapiens’ chance for survival are social life and imagination. Using experience humans then imagined how these experiences related to other parts of life or how they might be useful in carrying out the necessary jobs of survival, e.g., hunting, gathering, shelter. In fact, many anthropologists believe animal tracking was the first instance of these combinations and the first instance of what is called science today. All this is about problem solving not some sort of sacred formula or hierarchy. And the basis of all this, of all human problem solving is experience and human imagination. Scientists added some ripples to hypothesis testing (e.g., more and more detailed observations, instruments, institutionalization (that ensured observations were performed and the data retained accurately, and higher prestige and income for scientists). But they changed it in no fundamental way. So, really there is no fundamental difference between the work of scientists except what they observe, the instruments and techniques they use to observe, the techniques they use to ‘interpret’ these observations, and how they use the results of these observations. The answers to these questions results in different versions of science.

      • pfeffertag
        March 31, 2021 at 2:07 pm

        “Science began when humans first walked the surface of the planet.”

        No, not if you speak English. In everyday speech the meaning of science is physics, chemistry, geology, medicine, meteorology, etc. Many would claim the cachet of “science” but I never heard of anyone claiming science goes back to prehistory. No one really claims it goes back before Galileo though there were, of course, precursors.

        There are various kinds of knowledge but the kind you are here talking about had no effect on hundreds of thousands of changeless years of disease, famine, superstition and cruelty. And then something happened: suddenly, in a mere four hundred years, human beings discovered how the material universe works. What golden key did they find? They found science—as English speakers call it. It is also the science you, too, earlier assumed, for example where you say, “the other sciences (e.g., physical sciences).”

        Asserting that “Scientists added some ripples to hypothesis testing” and changed hypotheses in “no fundamental way” ignores the evidence I had already presented. To equate F=m1m2/d/d with any hunter-gatherer “hypothesis” is in my view ridiculous. It makes all the difference.

        “Humans have been imagining hypotheses based on experience (formally: observation) since the species’ beginning. Otherwise, it is unlikely our species would have survived.”

        No one knows the basis for a hypothesis. We know it comes from a human mind, and that is all we know. What sort of arrogance is it to kid ourselves, without a shred of evidence, that we know how it got into the mind? This delusion that we know how the mind works leads directly to the fallacy that observations yield scientific knowledge, which in turn has led to over a century of fruitless social science. Except in economics which did not so kid itself, was not deluded and was not fruitless.

        Those primitive hypotheses were of gods and magic and sorcery. They reinforced the disease, famine, etc and it is a most interesting question as to why they also led to survival since, on the face of it, one would think sticking to the truth would give a survival advantage. This is evidently not the case since for 99% of humanity’s existence, people never made a move without taking the supernatural into account. That, however, is another discussion.

        Unlike those prescientific hypotheses, a science hypothesis is a relationship between two or more idealised concepts from which testable consequences may be deduced. This seems to be the net difference between science theory and other forms of knowledge.

        Free yourself of the notion that any science theory came about through observation (or induction). For what it is worth, I don’t know any modern philosopher who believes observation or induction leads to theory.

  8. Gerald Holtham
    March 31, 2021 at 2:52 pm

    If every event or institution is unique, a singularity, and if no generalizations are possible, then nothing you learn about anything is of any use to you in thinking about anything else. Now that is not the situation. You talk, Ken, of experience but experience is only useful because you are prepared to extrapolate from it to present circumstances. We all make generalisations all the time. The point of any systematic study is to classify generalisations and to test them to find the limit of their validity. By “higher-level” I was not suggesting a hierarchy of merit but a hierarchy of generality. A generalisation about all mankind is operating at a higher level than a generalisation about any particular sub-group of people.
    We agree, I think, that there is a sure to be a limit to how broad generalisations can validly be in social studies and economics has frequently overreached. And, of course, you start with a framework, namely a society organised on commercial lines. Although normative aspects of the discipline concern themselves with optimal deployment of scarce resources, which can have wider applicability.
    I can’t resist an anecdote. My elder daughter was a precocious talker. When she was barely one year old I pointed at the standard lamp in our sitting room and said “light”. She tried to repeat the word. Later, in the bedroom I put her in her cot and asked “where’s the light?” I half expected her to point out of the bedroom door to the sitting room. Instead she pointed at the light on the ceiling. At one year old she somehow new that words applied not to singular objects but to classes of objects. With a vocabulary of few words she was ready to assign an object to a class of which she had just learned the name. It shows the human tendency to classification, and therefore generalisation, is innate. In fact when we say we understand something, are we saying more than that we are ready to assign it to a class we already know about?

    • March 31, 2021 at 3:29 pm

      I’d started to say I agreed more with Ken than pfeffertag about prehistoric science even though he’d completely missed the point (of theory requiring language to express it). I’m glad to see Gerald has beaten me to it. Modern science in my opinion dates from Francis Bacon advising us to take things to bits to see how they worked (hence the circulation of blood), but Aristotle’s family tree classification worked well enough on the appearances of all the new discoveries then being reported by travellers. Hume misconstrued the impossibility of logical proof (what is true of all is true of any) being based on induction (statistics), yet most and in particular social scientists and the editors of peer-reviewed journals have subsequently accepted what amounts to the same thing, i.e. majority opinion. Induction does have a role, but it lies in assessing reliability rather than inference.

  9. Ken Zimmerman
    April 1, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Humans in something like their present form have been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Imagine (this is important) a human 200,000 ago picking up what we might call a rock and throwing it. What happens? The humans imagine using the rock for hunting, or for making tools, etc. They try out these possibilities. They ‘test’ hypotheses. Or the human hunter of that time tracking prey. The hunter wants to know about the tracks. Do they help find the prey, are some tracks decoys, etc. Looks like what we call science today. Using hypotheses to investigate things we want to figure out. Humans have added a lot of miscellanea to this work (e.g., mathematics, instruments of many sorts, institutions) but the goal remains the same, as do the protagonists. Humans are science. It is not what people do – it is what people are. And claiming that humans “have discovered” how the physical universe works is arrogant, at best. Especially for a species that is only about 2,000,000 years old and has never left the planet of its origin.

    As to how hypotheses get into the human mind, I suggest they get there through human imagination. 12,000 years ago Sapiens was a species going nowhere. It had little promise of a future. But then humans began to imagine possibilities about the world from small things to the largest. And work on ways to figure out if any of those imaginings helped humans understanding themselves or the events around them. Why this happened is not know to us. But it did happen.

    Humans have created many theories, all based on experience and imagination. Hunter-Gatherers: tracking animals, finding water, migrating safely. All were tested. Some worked out. Others did not, sometimes with deadly consequences. For the period of the great empires: how can we keep peace in large (20,000-30,000) cities; how can we get the cities what they need for survival? For the creation of Islam: do we want peace, how do we get it? Etc.
    Finally, I disagree with your characterization of economics. It is a dead end, not least because too many who invent it consider that it contains the ultimate understanding of humans. Since economics is just one small part of human society and history, it simply cannot meet this expectation.

    Gerald Holtham
    Each event and human are unique. But humans can imagine and then investigate events or persons at separate times and locations to assess similarities. Then use those assessments to build hypotheses or imagine next steps. Observation, hypotheses, observation, hypotheses. The ever repeating cycle of human being on earth. From which humans create knowledge followed by other knowledge, etc. A chain.

    Humans infer and deduce. They have invented diverse methodologies to do this. But in the end, it is human imagination that makes it all function. Bacon just tapped into this process and refined it with his own imaginative additions.

    • April 1, 2021 at 9:24 am

      Ken, you are still missing the point that we need language to be able to infer and deduce. Is it possible to have images stable enough to hang onto without language and a brain capable of processing it?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 1, 2021 at 9:46 am

        Yes, Dave language goes along with inference, deduction, and the imagination from which they spring. They are all social processes. As is language. Humans invented sociality about 200,000 years ago from what little evidence there is to consider so we can assume that language came soon after. This is near we believe the time our own species evolved.

    • pfeffertag
      April 2, 2021 at 3:45 am

      “the goal remains the same”

      This constant goal is to figure out how things work—yes? Well for 200K years there was nothing to show for it. Then suddenly, in a few centuries… What made the difference?

      “claiming that humans “have discovered” how the physical universe works is arrogant”

      It is a statement of fact. While there will always be detail to fill in, overall we know how it works. The science performance of the last four centuries is unprecedented. It may be unprecedented in the whole universe. Further novelty can’t be entirely ruled out, but are there any puzzles the solution to which would be a surprise? You only get to discover relativity or the double helix once. Horgan, in “The End of Science,” suggests it was done by about 1970 (which would hold for economics, too).

      Achieving knowledge of the material universe without leaving the planet is a scientific triumph, not grounds for criticism.

      The contrast with our lack of social understanding is stark. Of society we have no theory. The only gleam in the gloom is economics. It is the only field which has anything like a handle on society. The notable thing distinguishing economics from the rest of social science is its application of the same hypothetico-deductive method as the natural sciences. The other social sciences remain as lost in the dark as, say, Plato, dependent on analogy and literature.

      “I suggest [hypotheses] get there through human imagination.”

      Yes!!! Somehow a hypothesis or theory gets imagined.

      You wonder why human imagination took off 12K years ago? There is a simple explanation. People stir themselves when they are pressured. After 50K years of going forth and multiplying the world had become overpopulated so they invented agriculture. Imagination didn’t really take off; it just changed in response to the pressure. In another couple of thousand years overpopulation again struck so they invented science and industry. Then in few hundred years the world again became overpopulated (so they invented democracy and contraceptives and emancipation of women and lost interest in multiplying).

      Economics “is a dead end, not least because too many who invent it consider that it contains the ultimate understanding of humans.”

      I have set out a clear argument showing how and why economics is successful (though stagnant). I doubt anyone thinks it contains the ultimate understanding of humans but whatever their opinion, it has no bearing on whether it is a dead end. Belief plays no role in science theory.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 3, 2021 at 5:42 am


        I think you are missing the point about science. I offer a quote from Fritjof Capra below. I believe he answers your point that it is a ‘fact’ that humans have worked out how the physical world works. Capra seems not to agree with you. Capra also makes clear that it is not some secret locked in scientific method or the science way that explains the ‘advancements’ in science over the last several hundred years. I agree with his points here. But I also believe that he has missed, or at least not emphasized some the main factors that explain these changes. All are cultural. As I have noted elsewhere, it is my position that humans have ‘performed’ science since they first evolved. The changes that have led to science having a larger impact on human ways of life (in the west) are of two sorts. First, there are changes in ideas. For example, before approximately the year 1500 humans saw little changes in their lives from one generation to the next. Near the year 1500 this began to change. The ‘idea of progress’ was invented. Before this ‘new’ idea, why should science, in any form be of interest since nothing could change? Second, there are institutional changes. Science could not exist or meaningfully shape human cultures without democracy or at least safe political arrangements that supported science’s authority, without economic arrangements that created sufficient surplus resources to support scientific work, or education arrangements that ensured a supply of ‘science minded’ actors of science. With these in place, humans created what came to be known as ‘big,’ ‘national,’ and ‘international’ science. There are other factors, but I will go no further here.

        “I was trained as a physicist and spent twenty years, from 1965-85, doing research in theoretical high energy physics at several European and American universities. From my early student years, I was fascinated by the dramatic changes of concepts and ideas that occurred in physics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In my first book, The Tao of Physics (Capra, 1975), I discussed the profound change in our worldview that was brought about by the conceptual revolution in physics – a change from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view.

        In my subsequent research and writing, I engaged in a systematic exploration of a central theme: the fundamental change of world view, or change of paradigms, that is now also occurring in the other sciences and in society; the unfolding of a new vision of reality, and the social implications of this cultural transformation. To connect the conceptual changes in science with the broader change of worldview and values in society, I had to go beyond physics and look for a broader conceptual framework. In doing so, I realized that our major social issues – health, education, human rights, social justice, political power, protection of the environment, the management of business enterprises, the economy, and so on – all have to do with living systems; with individual human beings, social systems, and ecosystems.

        With this realization, my research interests shifted from physics to the life-sciences. Using insights from the theory of living systems, complexity theory, and ecology, I began to put together a conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension. I presented summaries of this framework, as it evolved over the years, in several books, beginning with The Turning Point (Capra, 1982), and followed by The Web of Life (Capra, 1996) and The Hidden Connections (Capra, 2002).

        In my new book, The Systems View of Life, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, professor of biochemistry at the University of Rome, I offer a grand synthesis of this unifying vision (Capra and Luisi, 2014). At the very heart of it, we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.

        We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships. We have also discovered that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily organs, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. And with the new emphasis on complexity, nonlinearity, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.

        We call this new science ‘the systems view of life’ because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as ‘systems thinking’, or ‘systemic thinking’.”

        This is the most important revolution in humans’ invention of modern science since the we moderns came up with our version of science. Did you miss it?

        You seem to have similar missing knowledge about the importance and value of social science. To help fill that void, I offer you the following.

        1. Social scientists help us imagine alternative futures. Social science can open up debate and give us a say in shaping our collective future. The social sciences developed as a field of study during the 19th century. During that period social science helped people understand the consequences and application of the new technologies of the age, such as steam power. And are performing the same task for the new technologies today.
        2. Social science can help us make sense of our finances. Social science is important not just for the future but also for what is happening now. It can help us protect ourselves from modern customs that endanger our economic welfare.
        3. Social science might save your life. Psychologists at the University of Liverpool spent time in a steel factory to work out what needs doing to create a safer environment. Sociologists are helping us understand the most effective ways to protect ourselves from non-responsive businesses and governments.
        4. Social scientists contribute to our health and well‐being. From sports sociologists to public health experts, from those interpreting medical statistics to those evaluating policies for our care in old age, social scientists are working hard to make sure that our health, leisure and social care services work to best effect.
        5. Social science can make your neighborhoods safer. One common myth exposed by social scientists is that if measures to reduce crime are taken in one neighborhood the criminals simply move on, leading to increased crime in another area. Sociologists at Nottingham Trent University worked closely with police to reduce crime through a method involving scanning for crime patterns.
        6. We need social scientists as public intellectuals. American society is sometimes said to be anti‐intellectual. Yet in our fast-changing world, there is a place for the social scientist as public intellectual. To explain events in all areas and how they are likely to effect lives of ordinary people. This is an obligation the social scientist takes on when they enter the social science disciplines. And doubly important today with the many deliberate attempts to confuse each citizen about the events and people effecting our lives.
        7. Social science can improve our children’s lives and education. All societies and all governments want to show they are doing the best for children. Yet too often education reform seems to take place without regard for the best interests of the learners. Education research shows that many parents, particularly parents of younger children, are more concerned that their children enjoy school, than that they are academic stars. For example, by working with students of all ages to understand their perspectives on schooling, researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Leeds have discovered new insights into what makes effective schools, and what makes for effective school leadership.
        8. Social science can broaden one’s horizons. For debates about feminism, peace, ecology, social movements, and much more, social science offers each of us new perspectives and new ways of understanding. Social science encourages a fresh look at our everyday activities and culture. And it offers this continually.
        9. Social science can change the world for the better. There is general agreement that the world needs to be a safer place where all people can enjoy basic dignity and human rights. This is the case even when we cannot always agree on what we should do to make it happen. Social scientists working in interdisciplinary teams have made their mark around human welfare and development. They are concerned with the social and economic advancement of humanity at large. They work with government institutions, UN organizations, social services, funding agencies, and with the media. They are influencing the work of strategists, planners, teachers, and program officers in developing and growing economies, like India, to influence development so that it impacts on the lives of the poorest members of society. For example, social scientists from the Delhi School of Economics are cooperating with colleagues at SOAS, University of London to explore the impact of legislation in India to guarantee minimum wages for rural unskilled manual laborers on the loves of women.
        10. We need social science to guarantee our democracy. Social science offers multiple perspectives on society, informs social policy, and supports us in holding our politicians and our media accountable. The Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmith’s College, London is monitoring how transformation from traditional to digital media is examining the move away from traditional journalism and politics to the point where we as citizens try to be community journalists, presenting our own accounts on‐line. The work brings together specialists in media and communications, sociology, and politics. Individual citizens may feel empowered by this but there are risks in turning away from traditional journalism, including fewer opportunities for in‐depth analysis and critique of powerful interests. This work by social scientists is critical in protecting a modern and transparent democracy. Hard to say what might happen without it!

  10. pfeffertag
    April 5, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you, Ken, for those numbered items. Social science as social work. Mostly you could replace social science/scientists with religion/priests and they would be as valid. I don’t have anything against them but they aren’t science. Moreover, to the extent they may be true they don’t apply across the board. From their beginnings, psychology and sociology have had such a normative thread but political science, economics and anthropology haven’t. Science is not normative; only the uses of science are normative.

    Prompted by your post, I started reading Capra’s “The Systems View of Life” on Amazon. You think it is an important revolution; I feel I stepped through the looking-glass.

    He has a heading “The scientific method” followed by his opinions (though he never says they are his opinions). He gives not one example as illustration or evidence. He is repeatedly wrong.

    He says the scientific method proceeds in several stages. “First it involves the systematic observation of the phenomena being studied and the recording of these observations as data.”

    Dead wrong. You and I have, by now, settled this. Science theory does not come from data; it comes from human imagination. This matters. People who think they can do science (real science, the kind that works) by “observing” will fail. This is the cause of the failure of the social sciences to generate a body of theory.

    Theory precedes observations. Is Capra pretending Popper doesn’t exist? To make “systematic” observations requires a theory of some kind, even if it is only a hunch, in order to decide what to observe. He behaves as if no one ever pointed out that observations are “theory-laden,” something that is widely accepted in philosophy of science.

    “This method of basing all models and theories firmly on empirical evidence is the very essence of the scientific approach.”

    And that is the very essence of rubbish. The truth is the exact opposite. Models are based on theoretical concepts. Reality is excluded. The Higgs Boson model was decades ahead of any empirical data. The same goes for gravity waves. No theory was ever based on evidence. You might check a theory by looking at reality but the theory itself deals only in idealised, theoretical concepts.

    “Crucial … is the realization that all scientific models and theories are limited and approximate.”

    Another statement without evidence—because there isn’t any. Again the opposite is the case. It is theory in science which is exact; reality is inexact. Reality is always perturbed by irrelevant influences and all the real instances are different from one other. Any physics theory shows this. This is one reason you can’t get theory by observing reality. Theory is perfect, pure, exact; that is what idealisation achieves; that is how theory becomes independent of definitions and language.

    Capra goes on to explain that mathematical models are nice to have but this is “problematic” in the social sciences “Thus we have come to realize over the last few decades that neither mathematical formulations nor quantitative results are essential components of the scientific method.”

    And so he redefines the “scientific method” to suit the failure of social science! No need to worry about quantity! We just declare it unnecessary! I say there is no natural science theory that does not interrelate quantifiable concepts. This is intrinsic to science theory. It is unknown in social science except in economics.

    Capra’s book is aimed at undergraduates. As such it is pernicious. This Donald Trump of social science also climbs onto “The whole is more than the sum of the parts” bandwagon, implying that science merely sums—which no science theory does.

    I can see where you got the assertion I originally picked up on: “In the social sciences the older notions of social sciences that look like and perform like the other sciences (e.g., physical sciences) is now almost wiped out.”

    As I pointed out then, it was never in, to get wiped out; nothing in social science looks like the physical sciences. Except in economics where it is as strong as ever. If social science ever did adopt science in the mode of physics, perhaps it could be as successful as economics. Toss his book in the bin.

    Something else. Capra says mathematics and quantifying has not been successful in social science. I say they haven’t been tried. The mathematics the social sciences got into is statistics (and it has failed) which isn’t science. Science theory is not a statistical correlation; it is a relationship of quantities (not counts) measured in agreed measurement units. Capra is apparently unaware of the difference. But then, he is unaware that theory does not come from observations.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      April 5, 2021 at 10:53 pm


      Your view of science is so narrow and ahistorical that we may never agree. First, science developed through religion and philosophy. They continue to have a role in science because is a human creation. Yes, social science is normative. But then so is physical science. If you seriously believe that normative history is not reflected in the work of physical scientists, you are fooling yourself.

      I will not debate Capra’s credentials with you. I will only say that he is highly regarded as a physicist by most other physicists. But that is of course normative on their part.

      As I have said repeatedly, science, theory included originates in both experience and human imagination. Cannot give you a precise division of labor.

      Capra is not pretending Popper did not exist. But he is saying Popper got the story wrong. Everybody walks around with dozens of ‘hypotheses’ about how the world works, based on experience. Some get tested on a daily basis through other experience. A few are tested systematically, broadly, and repeatably through some form of ‘experimental observation. The point here is that the hypotheses that began all this are experience based, first, and theory ‘laden’ second. And certainly, they are limited and approximate. List something humans do that is not so. Consequently, theory can never be “perfect, pure, exact.” Humans can certainly fool themselves into believing it is. And therein we arrive at the point where we see that imagining thus is equivalent to fact (in science). Take mathematics as an example. It is none of these things. Yet, so long as we maintain work in mathematics within the “theory’ humans created for it, it certainly seems as though it is.

      Finally, let me add. Theory in science certainly exists. The question you put up is, is it first or last in place? I say last. But whichever it is, it is contingent and like the experiences it is based on or to which it flows will always be so. Since it is a human creation. Otherwise, humans claim godship and all discussion of any sort ends in the face of god.

      • pfeffertag
        April 6, 2021 at 11:44 pm

        I keep saying it: ad hominem is not relevant. I put substantive points and am always hoping to be shown where they are wrong. Instead I get personal remarks. (I guess this must indicate my substantive arguments are irrefutable.)

        “science developed through religion and philosophy.” Through religion? Despite, more like.

        “They continue to have a role in science because is a human creation.” Religion does get in the way but philosophy plays no role and is viewed with contempt by the few scientists who give it a second thought. I think the only philosophical idea ever to escape the halls of academe is Popperian fallibility—and it has got to only a tiny minority of scientists. It is well known among social scientists (who don’t like it) but it is irrelevant to science itself.

        There is nothing normative about science theory. It’s simple to prove me wrong: just show me a theory with normative content. Science is only normative in application. Swords or ploughshares, bombs or power stations—such normative choices predate science by thousands of years; they have nothing to do with science theory.

        Capra is highly regarded? By his publisher no doubt, and by a public as sloppy and undiscriminating as he is. “First it [the ‘scientific method’] involves the systematic observation of the phenomena being studied and the recording of these observations as data.”

        So let us apply his alleged scientific method: first we will involve some observation. The observation we involve must be systematic, not unsystematic, and we will observe the phenomena being studied. All clear? And this is the first thing we do. But wait—how will we be systematic without theoretical guidance?

        “As I have said repeatedly, science, theory included originates in both experience and human imagination.”

        Ah, experience. So observation and data now morph into “experience”? That should be easy to defend—in case someone argues a science theory arises in a mind which is experience-free. See the post to Gerald below.

        “he is saying Popper got the story wrong.” Nope. And that’s the problem. If he said it, it would be legit. In fairness, I have read little of him (that won’t change).

        “Everybody walks around with dozens of ‘hypotheses’ about how the world works, based on experience.”

        The cave man scientist again. And “experience” again. But Capra said based on observation, not experience. Systematic observation, no less. Why the quotes around “hypothesis”?

        A science theory (or hypothesis) states a relationship (which is never just the sum) between two or more variables. In order to state a relationship the variables have to be measurable. And for this relationship to be understandable by others, the units of measure have to be agreed.

        It’s a long way from the cave man. That last para contains three sentences, three assertions. To prove me wrong you only need to refute one of them. Capra claims the second is incorrect but he does not give a refuting example—can you?

        “the hypotheses that began all this are experience based, first, and theory ‘laden’ second.”

        You really mean “observation based first.” But the sentence doesn’t make sense. A hypotheses can’t be theory-laden. The term “theory-laden” means the observations are guided by theory (or a hypothesis). So if theory follows observations, the observations were, obviously, not theory-laden.

        “And certainly, they are limited and approximate. List something humans do that is not so.”

        For a list insert any science theory. Every single theory as far as I know. That is the point. A science theory is independent of human culture. Were it otherwise science wouldn’t work. The word “limited” has here no meaning (science theories are more commonly thought of as universal since they admit of no exception) but “approximate” does have meaning and does not, and cannot, apply to science theory.

        Take, for example, Newton’s second law, F=ma. It was made (invented, found, discovered) by a human yet there is nothing human about it. It is claimed that F=ma has been operating for 13.8 billion years. Nothing human about that except the claim. If there are other industrial civilisations in the universe, they will have found the same relationship. They can state it in Greek characters, or in Chinese symbols or in a sentence in any language—none of these human factors affects the theory.

        A science theory is not approximate. There is no approximation in F=ma. A science theory is perfect, exact, pure, extreme. (I am not extreme but science theory always is.) The theory expresses an idealised relationship between idealised concepts.

        No theory represents reality perfectly. That is why it is called “theory.” We say colloquially, “That’s all very well in theory but in practice it is like this…” Theory is perfect but the practice isn’t. Reality is approximate, varying in every single instance. Its match to the theory varies with each time and place. No real instance reflects the theory perfectly; only the theory is perfect.

        A theory is not necessarily correct. On the contrary, a vital characteristic of a science theory is that it is provisional. It occurred to a human mind and is defended by a human mind and humans are fallible. As public knowledge, theories are subject to dispute, to refutation and eventually to correction. Were it otherwise, scientific knowledge could not improve. This, incidentally, rules out normative content since normative assertions cannot be corrected or improved.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 7, 2021 at 12:35 am


        I wish I had the time to go through all this with you. But right now I do not. Here is some reading that may substitute for a lengthy reply from me.

        Cambridge History of Science Vols. 4 and 7; Science, the Endless Frontier; The Private Science of Louis Pasteur; George Mendel Genetics Pioneer; A People’s History of Science; What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific Truth; Science as Practice; The Mangle of Practice; The Hedgehog and the Fox: The Social Shaping of Technology, How the Refrigerator Got is Hum; A Social History of Truth, Civility, and Science in 17th Century England; The Nature of Mathematical Proof; Trust in Numbers; Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact; Laboratory Life; Statistics in Britain 1865-1930; Knowledge and Social Imagery.

  11. Gerald Holtham
    April 6, 2021 at 5:46 pm

    Interesting discussion. The disagreement seems partly semantic – about where we draw the boundaries of “science”. It might help to reinvoke the distinction between pure and applied science. Or between science and engineerng which is the application of known principles plus pragmatic fixes and error margins to solve practical problems. A lot of Ken’s numbered examples do fall into that category. They are more than social work in that they are guided by systematic studies leading to generalizations which they then apply. These generalizations are not so general as the laws of physics but it may be that useful idealizations and valid generalization are necessarily more specific in social studies.
    When it comes to pure science I am a Popperian too but pfeffertag is an extremist. Popper did not say you cannot derive your conjecture from looking at phenomena. He merely said that the conjecture could not then be proved by something called induction. The conjecture had to be made and then tested to see whether it could be falsified. It is a matter of fact that Kepler’s observations led him to think planetary motion involved ellipses and that planets swept out equal areas of space in equal time. That knowledge helped Newton to his grand formulation of the laws of motion. Conjecture first then refutation yes but useful conjectures are not made by babies with no knowledge of the world.
    Moreover attempted falsification is nearly always an exercise in statistics if the system cannot be tightly controlled. Discovery of the Higgs boson was not a case of saying: ooh, there it is. The traces in the detection apparatus were assessed for the probability that they could have been caused by something other than the Higgs boson. Statistical theory eventually said you could reject the null hypothesis. Ergo we have “found” the H-b.
    No doubt Lars Syll would reject the finding on the ground that we cannot utterly exclude the possibility that the whole standard theory is completely wrong and the observed phenomena could have been caused by something that does not correspond to the H-b or anything else we have hypothesized. As a matter of logic he is right but such thinking makes any science impossible. You have to start somewhere. No system of thought can question every axiom at once.

  12. Gerald Holtham
    April 6, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    One final point about emergent phenomena as properties of systems. Of course these exist, are important and can be studied without knowing how the components of the system work. That does not mean the system is somehow more than its parts. There is no ghost in the machine. The emergent phenomena are the result of the interactions of the parts. As such they could not be inferred or guessed from the properties of one part in isolation. It is the expectation of all reductionists nonetheless that there is an explanation for emergent properties in terms of the interactions of a system’s component parts. The emergent phenomena however may be stable enough for scientific hypotheses to be framed at the level of the system and similar systems. People knew how gases behaved before they knew about Brownian motion of molecules. We have some knowledge of how developed commercial economies behave without being able to derive this knowledge from individual behaviour. In fact the attempt to reduce macro emergent phenomena to the results of choice theoretic axioms about individuals has led economics down a blind alley and stultified it for forty years.

    • pfeffertag
      April 6, 2021 at 11:49 pm

      “Popper did not say you cannot derive your conjecture from looking at phenomena.”

      Nor do I. I didn’t mean to rule anything out. We don’t know where ideas come from. All we know is that the theory (hypothesis, conjecture) arises in a human mind. Realistically, it will be a mind steeped in the relevant field. As you say: “useful conjectures are not made by babies with no knowledge of the world.” All I am saying is that it is incorrect to assume observation precedes theory. Incorrect to assume—and cases like the Higgs and gravity waves with decades of theory before any observation prove it.

      “It is a matter of fact that Kepler’s observations led him to think planetary motion involved ellipses and that planets swept out equal areas of space in equal time.”

      Not quite. What he decided was that circular orbits did not fit and something else was needed. Says Wikipedia: “He then set about calculating the entire orbit of Mars, using the geometrical rate law and assuming an egg-shaped ovoid orbit. After approximately 40 failed attempts, in late 1604 he at last hit upon the idea of an ellipse, which he had previously assumed to be too simple a solution for earlier astronomers to have overlooked. Finding that an elliptical orbit fit the Mars data, Kepler immediately concluded that all planets move in ellipses, with the Sun at one focus—his first law of planetary motion.”

      That fits with what I understand of Kepler—a plan to try out 40 hypotheses and the ellipse fitted, somewhat to his surprise. Textbook Popperian conjecture and refutation.

      “Moreover attempted falsification is nearly always an exercise in statistics if the system cannot be tightly controlled.”

      I suspect that statistics only apply to testing at the molecular level or below. I seems to me that (a) because of the huge numbers of atoms or molecules, they can be treated statistically, and (b) the quantum is not divisible so in that sense not measurable—it can only be counted. Statistics work for ideal gases but again that assumes random movements of molecules. I should be interested to learn if there is any statistical testing of a science theory above the molecular level. I suspect not.

      As to the whole standard theory being wrong—I don’t see a problem but surely it is a case of the need to come up with something better if the ST is to be rejected.

      “It is the expectation of all reductionists nonetheless that there is an explanation for emergent properties in terms of the interactions of a system’s component parts.”

      Then I am a reductionist. Nothing against early gas theory but there IS an explanation.

      “the attempt to reduce macro emergent phenomena to the results of choice theoretic axioms about individuals has led economics down a blind alley and stultified it for forty years.”

      Well, it is a brute fact that society is made of individuals. Surely the problem is mainly the assumption of the individual choice being selfish. As everyone knows, this is at some variance with the reality.

      In reality a person’s choice has to be defended. Social life is a sort of accounting: we hold others to account and account for our own actions in the terms set by the society (which is a historic circumstance that each person is caught in). Therefore, it is at least thinkable that instead of maximising individual self interest, we could do the opposite: maximise social propriety. That is, assume that individuals want a good society and make deductions from that assumption. This is just as valid as the self-interest assumption. The trouble is, it would not be economics and not measurable in dollars—yet it must be done if economics is to break out of its cage.

      • Meta Capitalism
        April 7, 2021 at 8:57 am

        The contribution philosophers can make to our understanding of the natural sciences is, perhaps, modest. It is, nevertheless, legitimate, both as a contribution to that task and as an application of our ability to reflect upon, to question and to evaluate a characteristically human enterprise. (Gower, Barry. Scientific Method (p. 19). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

        Great book, well worth the read. Does a great job of summarizing both Ken’s and Pfeffertag’s polemics.

      • Meta Capitalism
        April 7, 2021 at 9:00 am

        And this one exposes the many fallacies in Pfeffertag’s polemics:

      • Meta Capitalism
        April 7, 2021 at 9:12 am

        Religion does get in the way but philosophy plays no role and is viewed with contempt by the few scientists who give it a second thought. ~ Pfeffertag’s Polemical Dogma (aka piss poor unconscious philosophy) on Display

        Scientism is not science and the claims above are not science either. Painting the world in black and white stereotypes is frankly ignorant. Religion comes in many forms from institutional to personal. Many of the early philosopher-scientists (and that is what they were) were also religionists of one tradition or another and yet they managed to make foundational contributions to the advancement of science. Many religionists continue to do so today. One can find bad religion (aka dogmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, fundamentalist extremism, etc.) just as one can find bad philosophy, bad science, bad economics or sociology, and those that practice such creeds (dogmatically held beliefs) have more in common with each other than those true pioneers of good science, good philosophy, and good religion.

  13. Craig
    April 7, 2021 at 12:03 am

    Yes, this is a good discussion. It’s good to be for science. It’s even better to be for GOOD, OPEN MINDED science, and its always best to be for what historically has always enabled scientific breakthrough and that is the integrative/BOTH/AND mindset.

    Good science is BOTH rigorously falsifying AND willing and able to embrace imagination. Wisdom/Natural Philosophy is the integrative mindset/perspective and science is a wholly included set within it. Wisdom/Natural Philosophy is hence the more enabling of whole truth and so the superior mental discipline.

    Whatever the investigation, if we accepted, as all of the world’s major wisdom traditions do, that love is the supreme value and experience and that its active form, grace/graciousness/lovING is the most integrative/unifying/resolving idea and action, then we might be a lot closer to fixing economics, making it a securely joyous daily experience and getting on the bandwagon of using grace as in monetary gifting to move with post haste toward surviving global warming.

  14. Meta Capitalism
    April 7, 2021 at 7:25 am

    [P]hilosophy plays no role and is viewed with contempt by the few scientists who give it a second thought. ~ Pfeffertag’ Arrogance on Display
    When we reflect on science — its aims, its values, its limits — we are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it. (Giberson 2007: 40)

    You spend a lot time pontificating on what science is Pfeffertag, which is in itself doing philosophy, thereby being your own refutation of your naïve dogmatic claims and totally unware of your own philosophical presuppositions based upon dogmatic faith (mere belief, a kind of religion in itself).
    You frequently make absolutist dogmatic statements like observation is never a part of science despite the fact that it is the means by which an hypothesis is tested by observing the results of an experiment in the real world. Yet, through observation (and we extend our ability to observe through tools and technology) we encounter facts that either confirm or disconfirm the adequacy of our concepts (and models):

    One of the basic tools of human thought in the process of understanding lies in the provisions of models, based on appropriate concepts. Models are used to gain understanding of the material world. Theories provide explanations. Under suitable conditions this leads to the natural sciences. Conceptual models can also be used to describe and explain the ways humans acquire knowledge about the natural world around them. Under suitable conditions this leads to philosophy. The interaction between facts and concepts and the interaction between science and philosophy give rise to a fundamental tension, which will reverberate throughout the pages of this study. The more fundamental their concepts are, the more humans cherish them. But when the facts speak against the adequacy of the concepts, something needs to give way. Throughout the history of science, scientists and philosophers have often give up or modified the concepts in favor of the facts. Dissatisfied with the everyday notions of time and space, Newton set forth his notions of absolute time and space. Dissatisfied with the notions of absolute time and space, Einstein set forth his notions of relativistic time and space. In many of his writings, Einstein warned against fixation on concepts. It would hinder the progress of science. Concepts, which once ordered the phenomena adequately, were always in danger of becoming ‘thought necessities’ (Denknotwendigkeiten). Fundamental concepts like Nature, time and causation were dependent on experience. Therefore, they were always subject to revision or rejection, depending on their empirical adequacy. Such philosophical reasoning formed the backbone of Einstein’s revolution in physics. However, Einstein was not consistent in his philosophical convictions. In his correspondence with Max Born on the interpretation of quantum physics, he declared himself unwilling to give up the notion of causal determinism. In a letter written to Born on April 29, 1924, Einstein refused to abandon the notion of causation in the face of the quantum-mechanical evidence available at that time. (Weinert 2004: 95-96)
    (….) The significance of physical science for philosophy does not merely lie in the steady increase of our experience in inanimate matter, but above all in the opportunity of testing the foundation and scope of some of our most elementary concepts.

    The philosopher is invited to move from the facts to the most fundamental concepts. The physicists were aware that ‘old notions are discarded by new experiences.’ However, it is precisely Einstein’s problem to determine to which extent revolutionary scientific discoveries have philosophical consequences. It is the job of the philosopher to evaluate whether or not some of the fundamental notions do bend under the weight of evidence, as the scientists claim they do. When we move from facts to the concepts, the most natural transition occurs from science to philosophy. The most interesting collaboration emerges. The scientists question the fundamental notions, on the strength of the evidence. The scientists claim that empirical evidence can test and refute the fundamental notions. Heisenberg holds that due to empirical discoveries not only the content but also the structure of our thinking can change. New notions are set in place. A dual process is at work. New evidence often does show the inadequacy of the old notions. In this sense new discoveries offer constraints on the conceptual models of the fundamental notions. But the scientist’s enthusiasm for the refutation of old notions may be too optimistic. Philosophy does not yield so easily to the verdict of science. The philosophical consequences, which the scientist draws from the new discoveries, may not follow — or may not follow in the way imagined. (Weinert 2004: 97)

    (….) So the dialectic will take the following form. Philosophical presuppositions — i.e., implicit or explicit assumptions like determinism — pervade scientific thinking. New discoveries may highlight the problematic nature of these presuppositions. Many scientists begin to wonder about the adequacy of the old conceptual assumptions. They draw philosophical conclusions from the discoveries. These are the philosophical consequences, which need to be evaluated. (Weinert 2004: 98)

    (….) It is true that scientific discoveries have always had philosophical consequences. But concepts are not mere maids to facts. And facts are not simple servants to concepts. There is a dialectic between concepts and facts, science and philosophy. (Weinert 2004: 98)

    You sometimes make absolutist claims which are a form of scientism in that they are not the consequence of science, the proof of which is that many scientists don’t share your beliefs _about_ science contrary to your dogmatic claims. When world-class scientists differ in their beliefs about science we are witnessing philosophy not science, their personal philosophical positions not scientific fact or established scientific meanings and theories.
    When naïve dogmatic pontificators like yourself proclaim philosophy useless while doing piss-poor philosophy (ironically you are in good company with Ken for he did the same) you put on full display a form of scientism:

    Scientism is, however, an obviously self-defeating ideology. Its claims about its own epistemology are not the consequence of any scientific investigation but rather reach outside itself into the very realm it claims does not exist. The claim that there is no valuable knowledge outside science certainly cannot be supported from within science. This is an extremely simple philosophic error, akin to a child claiming that because all the people he knows are in his house, that there cannot be any people outside his house. (Giberson 2007: 40)

    There may be no scientists in your personal house who understand science’s relation to philosophy, but then, history shows you live in a very tiny house for many great scientists indeed recognized the fact that all science is done within some philosophical framework or another.

    How a scientist becomes a disciple of scientism is mysterious, because science and scientism are incompatible. Science owes its success to its restricted focus — its acknowledged inability to even address questions like those raised by scientism, much less answer them. Scientists concentrate on very particular subjects, generally astonishingly narrow, and use rigorous methods to study them, submitting their hypotheses to careful scrutiny and avoiding extrapolations or unwarranted generalizations. In contrast, scientism is an unsupported generalization, bad philosophy masquerading as science or one of its consequents. This qualifies as a virus of the mind, to use Dawkin’s own terminology. Most of scientism’s disciples are casual and probably not even aware that they hold this philosophy, but when scientism is seriously adopted, it becomes a sort of pseudo-religion, providing a meaning to life, and an ideal for which one will fight. Conversion to this strong form of pseudo-religious scientism often derives from two related factors: a disillusionment with some form of traditional religion, and the discovery that science is wonderful and seems to provide meaning and values, in addition to knowledge. (Giberson 2007: 40)
    There are indeed important values associated with scientific work, and the progress of science contributes to their spread. Progress in crucial aspects of contemporary culture reflects the spread of scientific values. But as most practicing scientists have discovered, one can work in science, easily mixing its values with unrelated extra-scientific interests. (Giberson 2007: 40)

  15. pfeffertag
    April 7, 2021 at 10:49 am

    Well, as I said above, resorting to ad hominem just makes it look like you can’t budge my substantive arguments.

    “being your own refutation of your naïve dogmatic claims”

    Can’t you give any evidence? I don’t get anything from the abuse. If you think I am wrong, show me where. Supply some evidence and I will revise my thinking.

    “You frequently make absolutist dogmatic statements like observation is never a part of science”

    Garbage. More wild ad hominem without evidence. Never said any such thing. Pity—it is so easy to argue against such a silly position. You can really go to town on it—as you do.

    Weinert’s opening sentence says, “the process of understanding lies in the provisions of models, based on appropriate concepts”

    No. Good Grief. The only use for a concept in science theory is to fulfil a relational need. Think why phlogiston was introduced and why it was discarded. Think of the aether or dark matter. The correct statement would read “understanding is with models based on relationships between idealised concepts.” Note that this is simple to refute (personal attack won’t suffice): all that is needed is to find a science theory containing concepts that are not interrelated.

    The rest of that lengthy Weinert quote is abstract assertions with no examples. Lots of claims about what scientists allegedly think. And no evidence.

    If Weinert had thought about an example—like phlogiston or dark matter or gravity—he might not have made that blunder in his first sentence. No doubt people do get stuck on concepts—phlogiston carried on after it was refuted. People don’t want to face it when they are wrong; but that’s people, not science, and in due course the science (or death) will sort them out, as in the case of phlogiston.

    And, like Capra, Weinert is sloppy. “Fundamental concepts like Nature, time and causation were dependent on experience. Therefore, they were always subject to revision or rejection, depending on their empirical adequacy.”

    Waffle. No theory contains the concepts “Nature” or “causation” so they are not fundamental to anything (except philosophical waffle). Time is valid but where is the evidence of its alleged revision?

    “The significance of physical science for philosophy [lies] above all in the opportunity of testing the foundation and scope of some of our most elementary concepts.”

    Well, the concept which is his Denknotwendigkeit is the word “concept.” Philosophy can do as it wants but as long as it thinks physical science depends on concepts it will just manufacture more abstractions. Physical science depends on interrelationships—of which Weinert is apparently oblivious.

    He subsequently goes on to use the word “notions” which is even vaguer than “concepts” and so makes him safer from being shown to be in error.

    “scientific discoveries have always had philosophical consequences. But concepts are not mere maids to facts. And facts are not simple servants to concepts. There is a dialectic between concepts and facts, science and philosophy.”

    More waffly claims without evidence. What about relationships between concepts? He doesn’t know they exist.

    The assertion that scientists do not share my “dogmatic claims” as you call them, is not “proof” of anything. All it indicates (if true) is a difference of opinion—and whereas I back up my claims with illustrations and examples (the antithesis of dogmatic), they don’t.

    Your post is overlong, abstract, full of assertions and banalities with no evidence. The repetitive personal abuse can only indicate my substantive arguments are sound.

    • Meta Capitalism
      April 7, 2021 at 2:50 pm

      Pfeffertag states, “a difference of opinion” is not science. It is either a matter of belief (ideological or otherwise) or blind faith. You make my argument for me you fool.

    • Meta Capitalism
      April 7, 2021 at 3:10 pm

      Pfeffertag, you are just another troll on RWER. You don’t read the books on the right hind side, but only posts to hear yourself. Scientistic narcissism on display.

  16. Meta Capitalism
    April 7, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Blind, deaf, and dumb. You remind of the three monkeys! You are joke.

    • Meta Capitalism
      April 7, 2021 at 3:33 pm

      Your post is overlong, abstract, full of assertions and banalities with no evidence. The repetitive personal abuse can only indicate my substantive arguments are sound. ~ A joke if there every was one

      Ha, ha, ha! If one was to go back and look at our empty verbose posts, and do word count, and the number of non sequiturs you pontificate, it would be true irony! What a waste of electronic space ;-) You cannot deal with the content so you resort to the straw argument of “abuse”! You are a now seen for what you really are. An empty shirt! A hallow troll.

  17. Craig
    April 7, 2021 at 4:44 pm

    Whew! Wouldn’t it be better if we just decided that grace/ultimate integrated oneness was the complete and natural state of the cosmos, science was a helpful pragmatic part of that state and then worked on crafting economic policies aligned with it?

  18. Gerald Holtham
    April 8, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    Passing silently over the last few contributions, I want to engage with pfeffertag’s view that scientific hypotheses are tested by statistics only at the quantum level. You have to exclude both medicine and economics as sciences (many do of course) to hold that view. Both disciplines deal with complex systems where complete control is impossible and the validity of empirical generalisations or the applicability of general propositions is always settled on statistical grounds, if settled at all. The smaller data sets mean that statistical tests have lower power than when applied to quantum data but that doesn’t alter the fact that there is no alternative. If a system has to be treated as stochastic on epistemological grounds you can never get a non-stochastic refutation. Even double blind tests in medicine seldom if ever give yes-no results and whether anomalies are dismissed or regarded as fatal to a treatment or hypothesis is decided statistically.
    It may well be that the only contribution economics has made to real science is in the search to extract information from poor data sets that do not obey the classical assumptions. What do you do with data sets that are collinear, interdependent, measured with error etc, etc? Most sciences deal with that by tighter control of the experiment. Econometrics has had to do so by working out better tests for deleterious data characteristics and finding techniques to extract valid information where possible and to understand the limits of inference where not possible – results that are useful outside economics. Often the data is poor enough that the tests have low power to discriminate. In any case, the generation of economic theory has become divorced from this practice and generally prefers not to subject itself to rigorous empirical testing. Models are taught as if they were informative long after their empirical emptiness should have been acknowledged.

    • pfeffertag
      April 9, 2021 at 9:33 pm

      I see medicine as a science but not the statistics used to test application. Testing is one thing. theorising another. At the quantum level, theory is statistical because (so they tell us) nature is made that way; it is not just that it we can’t determine position and velocity of an electron, or to describe it in plain language, but that in some weird way its actual existence is itself statistical.

      Testing a drug on people is statistical because people are complicated and there are unknown or uncontrollable factors—as I think you said earlier. But that’s testing, not theorising. The theory is not statistical. The theory says the drug does some specific action which evokes some specific response from the targeted organ or organelle.

      Testing of this specific action will be in the laboratory and won’t be statistical. If they found variation in the petri dishes, presumably they would seek a cause such as strength of solution or temperature or something. Even if they had ten thousand dishes I can’t imagine them simply noting an empirical statistic and declaring it the end of the matter (which seems to be what the subatomic physicist does). In short, the actual scientific theory part of medicine has no connection with statistics.

      Economics is comparable: the theory is deductive based on assumptions—no stats anywhere. As I have remarked many times, this is standard science theorising. As with drugs, testing validity in human society has to be statistical. To the extent it is done the results are ambivalent. If econometrics improves statistical techniques that will be a contribution to mathematics, rather than to science. At least, it has nothing to do with science theorising.

      The base assumption of economic theory (people maximise self-interest) is too narrow—as practically everyone agrees. Economic theory knows no society, only individuals trading with each other (or firms—same difference). Other, social, axioms need to be theorised. To be effective it must be done in the same way: deduction based on assumptions. This is the method of science which has brought results for hundreds of years.

      My thesis is simple. Economics, alone of the social sciences, theorises scientifically and it has been successful in the sense that economics is the only social science to build a body of theory. However it exhausted its individualist premises a generation or more ago. The theory must be broadened with premises which hypothesise social human beings.

  19. Gerald Holtham
    April 9, 2021 at 10:11 pm

    Mmm. i don’t really understand what the remaining dispute is. Scientific hypotheses are deterministic about an idealized reality. Applied to actual reality they become probabilistic and have to be tested as such. Separating “science” from its application and testing seems eccentric to me. The theory of how to test hypotheses in a complex reality is as useful as any other theory – doubly so if it is an important element in making other theory useful. Surely the accumulation of human understanding isn’t simply a matter of dreaming up theories – I can do that ten times before breakfast. It also consists in working out their observable implications, working out ways to test them and designing and carrying out the necessary tests, experimental and statistical. Only thus do we move forward. Economics makes, if I may say so, the same mistake that you do in privileging elegant theory construction above the other elements in the scientific enterprise. If it took empirical testing more seriously it would be forced to re-examine and generalise its premises, as you advise.

  20. pfeffertag
    April 10, 2021 at 8:47 am

    I am not out to insult statistics by denying it the cachet of “science.” I am just distinguishing between theorising and testing a theory, and between statistical testing and—what to call it?—ordinary testing. They are different operations and each can be considered for itself. Crucial is the theory. Without it there is nothing to test.

    “Scientific hypotheses are deterministic about an idealized reality. Applied to actual reality they become probabilistic”

    Not necessarily probabilistic. Reality is messy but the deviations are only regarded as probabilistic in those uncontrollable situations. The petri dish testing has nothing to do with probability. The basic situation is that nature is reliable; she does not play dice so if we test a theory a single refutation should falsify it. There are no end of philosophical quibbles about this but there is no reason a single refutation couldn’t falsify a hypothesis in some circumstances and every reason two or three or four refutations would falsify—that’s got nothing to do with probability or statistics. Nature does play dice at the subatomic level which requires the theory itself to be statistical which, presumably, rules out falsification by a single refutation.

    You’d be doing well to dream up theories before breakfast. The social sciences (except economics) have not managed to produce many in a century of intense academic effort. I know of only two instances, namely psychology’s learning theory (which works on children and animals) and the saw that “democracies never war against each other.” Apart from them I don’t know any social theories that qualify as scientific in the sense of the successful physical sciences. That is a pretty dismal record.

    The lesson from the successful sciences is that a theory interrelates two or more idealised concepts which are not dependent on definitions. If the philosophers of science ever tell us this they hide it under mountains of indigestible opinion, thick with references to each other and to authorities of the past, all of it relentlessly abstract (i.e., without illustrative examples), in agreement on next to nothing, and sometimes ridiculously incorrect—as I show in posts above. Perhaps it is not surprising that the social sciences have failed: they get no guidance on how to do science from the people who profess to be analysing it.

    If I wrote a “How to do Science” instruction manual it would say to first construct a theory (ignore reality—shock horror) of the form A=f(B,C,…) whereby B, C, etc are idealised extremes (never average or typical) of quantities which do not depend on definitions and which are measurable in agreed measurement units. The interrelationship f(B,C,…) is never a simple sum (and is probably not linear) and the theory must be falsifiable, at least in principle.

    Those pretty strict conditions are necessary and perhaps sufficient. They are no problem to the natural scientists who satisfy them automatically and unwittingly. Economists are just as unwitting and I suspect that the basic reason economics cottoned onto the scientific method is because it has a kind of unit of measure: dollars.

    Measurement units are entirely missing in the other social sciences. It follows that for these to generate science theory they must resort to all-or-nothing presence or absence, that being the only “measurement” with a prospect of agreement. Economics does this when it theorises with perfect competition, market clearing, and perfect information.

    To my knowledge, in social science only those two instances I mention above follow the conditions. I don’t think there is any impulse to test them statistically. They may be worth pondering. Learning theory is a bit abstruse but “democracies never war against each other” is universally understandable. (By convention “war” means over 1000 people dead but it is only convention—so a case of 900 deaths would probably falsify.)

    For social science to be science (and thus for economics to take society into account) theory must be constructed according to the conditions set out above. The social science practice of counting and correlating defined concepts taken from reality instead of interrelating intensities of undefined theoretical concepts, has been going on at industrial scale ever since computers and their stats programs became readily available and it has failed. It has failed to produce theory and it will always fail to produce theory.

  21. Gerald Holtham
    April 10, 2021 at 8:29 pm

    “The basic situation is that nature is reliable; she does not play dice ”
    Well perhaps she does and perhaps she doesn’t. I’m a bit of a determinist myself. But you are ducking the issue. Nature may not play dice but people certainly do. And we are discussing social science. I admit to getting bored by discussions of whether indeterminacy in social systems is ontological or epistemological. It doesn’t matter because we can’t tell the difference. There is no theorem in the whole corpus of economics that anyone in his right mind would expect to apply universally and without exception. At the point where economic theory even threatens to become useful it becomes stochastic. Even in principle we cannot isolate infinitely lived, all-knowing populations of identical people to see whether they would behave as economic theory has it. To see whether such a model has any useful application we test its implications statistically. When they fail we keep teaching the model anyway ! One reason why it is hard to share your conviction about the superiority of economics to other social studies.

  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.