Tag Archives: Exemplars

The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategy

The Servants of Strategy

The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.

Why We Do What We Do

The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.

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The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.

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The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.

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A Division of Labor

These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.

Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.

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Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.

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Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…

I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:

1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?

These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.

What You Do

It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.

This Too Shall Pass

The Big Think has a rather poorly worded article, “Can we reach the end of knowledge.”

The article borders are incomprehensibility, because it confuses three things: ways of knowing, which are how we understand the world, science, one way of knowing based on testing falsifiable hypotheses, and normal science, which is a social phenomenon capable of scientific progress through the exemplars of good research.

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Humans will have “ways of knowing” as long as we exist, and science as long as we desire it, so the only sensible way to ask the question is how normal science will end: how will we stop making scientific progress?

Assuming a lack of a nuclear holocaust or other calamity, we will stop making progress in science for the same reason that we will stop making progress in the construction of propeller planes (a technology that has been in decay since the 1940s): the costs will exceed the benefits.

Three broad possible mechanisms for the end of normal science, therefore, are:

1. Increase in the costs of normal science, all other things being equal, or
2. Decrease in the benefits of, normal science, all other things being equal, or
3. Some external change, in other words, all things stop being equal.

On way the costs of normal science might increase is if that non-scientific fields outbid scientific fields for workers whose skills are essential to science. We may already be seeing this happen. A bit ago, Razib Khan had a much better written article, “The Real End of Science,” in which he noted the increase in scientific cheating. This is presumably undetected because there are too few scientists relative to the work we have available to them, and how much we are paying them.

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Related to this, normal science may end because of a decrease in the benefits of normal science. Perhaps the economic return on capital in both the short, medium, and long terms will be relatively low for scientific investments as opposed to capital improvements, and so it does not make sense to pay enough for scientists to engage in research that can make progress.

Thirdly, the ecosystem that supports normal science might collapse, changing the costs and benefits simultaneously. For instance, folks like Diane Ravitch are openly hostile to normal science and the federal-academic complex that supports it. A coalition of leftists and rightists could take down or deform the Large Research Universities and the Grant Funding Agencies to greatly retard normal science, subjecting them to the same lobotomy of low wages that has destroyed the American teaching profession.

Of course normal science will end. The important questions are when it will end, and who will miss it?

The Search for Academic Utility

Over the past few weeks I talked a lot about “paradigms.” Paradigms are “research programs” that focus on a few exemplars of high quality work. This allows science to make progress, and breaks up “old boy” networks by privileging results over connections. The need for progress also allows students to have better lives after they graduate. Professors, like all people, crave money, power and respect.

Thus, normal science, paradigms, research programs, and exemplars align our the need for progress, student’s need for good lives, and professor’s need for professional accomplishment. This is how academia works. Science is not a cartoon. It is a great human achievement that gets human beings to predict, control, and improve variation of the objects scientists study.

Normal Science is good because it is useful, not because it is True.

Consider three areas of work: race-based explanations for school performance, my UFO theory, and the ancient astronaut theory of Great Pyramid construction. If I had to bet, I would bet a great deal of money there’s a very strong impact of race in academic performance not explainable by income, I would bet a small amount of money the aliens at Roswell were from Japan, and I would bet against someone claiming that the logistics of Great Pyramid construction was designed by creatures from beyond the Moon.

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But attempting to found an academic career on either of these theories would lead to a failure to gain tenure. The reason is all are currently outside of the normal science in educational psychology, digital humanities, and Egyptology. None of these theories are currently useful in the field, so none are pursued.

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Normal Science is just part of Science, which along with Inquiry are two of the ways of knowing about the world. There’s more to this world than captured in data sets. My friend Mark Safranski recent captured readers after linking to a data set, stating “ there are hidden qualitative decisions in who did the counting, how and by what yardstick.” Indeed, Normal Science has even more limitations than that.

A lot of grief is caused by considering Science the search for Truth. It may that, but Normal Science is the search for utility in an academic context.

Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — when it sucks to be young

Some people divide the ways we know about our world into two types, Science and Inquiry. Science typically refers to using falsifiable hypotheses to make predictions about the world. Inquiry refers to any deviation or alteration of this method.

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For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about fields in which the objective is to control, predict, and improve the behavior of some object (cancer cell, human being, State, whatever). That is the purpose for which the tool of science is most applicable.

Some people further divide Science into two types: Normal Science and Revolutionary Science. These terms from from Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Normal Science, in Thomas Kuhn’s original model, was capable of progress but governed by religious-like “paradigms.” Revolutionary Science, likewise in Kuhn’s outdated model, was capable of freedom but incapable of progress.

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I say “original” and “outdated” because no one — except for pretentious modern literature types, and including Kuhn himself — takes that model seriously anymore. While The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a breakthrough at the time (because it implied that science was not completely free, and that not all science would yield progress), the feedback to the model was intense and Kuhn’s model of science rapidly improved.

Instead of two distinct types of Science, Kuhn’s revised models described any scientific field as having “exemplars,” or examples of how the best research is conducted. Some fields (like structural equation modeling, say) have exemplars which are very similar and allow creativity only within that narrow and defined space. These “Normal” fields are capable of rapid progress. Other fields (like political science, say) have exemplars which are so wide and dispirit that researchers can basically do anything they want, and progress is extremely difficult.

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The looser the set of exemplars, the more role there is for “inquiry” within the science. For instance, take my own field (Educational Psychology). My dissertation was a mixed methods inquiry that involved a substantive literature review that stretched back to the 1970s as well as qualitative interviews with participants. That sounds a lot like inquiry and non-science. But my methodological section involved a literature review that went only back to 1999, with most of the work having been published within just a few years of my dissertation. That sounds a lot like science and progress.

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One way this matters is that in less-progressive, more scientific, looser-exemplar, fields, “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.

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The worse your bargaining position as you start in life, the more you find yourself without experience in an experiential field, the harder everything is. In some antiquated and retrogressive societies, workers with poor negotiating position are even told who they may and may not marry.

Of course, it’s possible for the young to do well in less progressive fields of study, as the old may do well in more progressive fields of study. It’s just that the field is never balanced. Experience pays, and the level of progressive in the field determines how much.