Tag Archives: paradigms

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.


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.


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.

Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boy Network

On Facebook, Daniel Nexon pointed me to this post by Steve Saideman, titled “Lamenting The Loss of the Light, The Ebbing of Grand Theory and The Decline of Old Boy Networks.” Saideman’s post itself is a commentary on Stephen Walt‘s and John Mearsheimer‘s ridiculous article, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR,” which will soon appear in the European Journal of International Relations.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s article is absurd on many levels. But I mention it for how well it reflects my post, “Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — When It Sucks to Be Young.”

In that post, I mention that it is horrible for your career to be young in a science with loose exemplars — that is, in a field that is “non-paradigmatic” or a “revolutionary science.” The more revolutionary the science, the looser the exemplars, the more “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.

Or in diagrammatic form:


What’s bizarre is that Walt and Mearsheimer agree with me! But this makes them sad. Walt and Mearsheimer would rather political science stay as anti-youth and revolutionary as possible, so that their power and influence could remain strong:

Over time, professions also tend to adopt simple and seemingly objective ways to evaluate members. Instead of relying on “old boy” networks, a professionalized field will use indicators of merit that appear to be impersonal and universal. In the academy, this tendency leads to the use of “objective” criteria—such as citation counts—when making hiring and promotion decisions. In extreme cases, department members and university administrators do not have to read a scholar’s work and form an independent opinion of its quality; they can simply calculate the “h-index” (Hirsch 2005) and make personnel decisions on that basis.22

The second part of the paragraph is literally incoherent, attacking the use of an h-index by arguing it’s a raw count of citation. Walt and Meirsheimer seem unable to do math, and so their inability to understand even basic fractions should not surprise you. What should be surprising is they are so openly defending the power aristocracy that comes from using subjective scores and the “old boys” network!

In fairness to Walt and Meirsheimer, the intellectual poverty they confess through their incoherent ramblings is not entirely their fault. Political science has been so revolutionary, so paradigmatic, so subjective for so long that few may know what a science actually is, or even understand the terms used to describe science.

Consider this earlier passage in Walt and Meirsheimer’s article, in which the “worse than wrong” passage is intended to be uncontroversial:

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.


Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

At one point in their article, Walt and Meirsheimer say that “the creation and refinement of theory is the most important activity in [social science].” This is nonsense. The most important activity in science is the prediction, control, and improvement of behavior. Theory can help, diagram can help, interviews can help, process tracing can help. But the paen to old boys network, and the nonsense that Walt and Mearsheimer try to pass off as a scholarly article, certainly doesn’t.

Attractive and Repulsive Paradigms

Zenpundit links to a fascinating map of scientific paradigms, courtesy of SEED Magazine. Some of the visualization is as expected: brain research and central nervous system research, for instance, have a lot to do with each other:

“Larger paradigms have more papers; node proximity and darker links indicate how many papers are shared between two paradigms. Flowing labels list common words unique to each paradigm, large labels general areas of scientific inquiry.”

But a broader view reveals a “donut hole” scientific enterprise: Far from the consilience hoped for by some, scientific research programs are as repulsive as they are attractive: there is no central science that ties the various fields together.

Repulsive Science

Depressingly, for example, social science has wandered far from her mother, Biology. While individual researches (say, Alford, Funk & Hibbing or Galor & Moav) attempt to unite these fields, such a conscilience is far from us now.

Not One Field Yet

I’ve written far less impressive things on this link. For my studies, I wrote on the educational implications of biology, as well as a nifty book review and some original research. And just for this blog, I discussed the interaction between politics and gender for my series on Christianity.

Boydian Orientation as a Political Science Paradigm

The Origin of Politics: An Evolutionary Theory of Political Behavior,” by John Alford and John Hibbing, Perspectives on Politics, Vol 2. No. 4, December 2004, 707-723, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=266160.

Today’s notes are from the John R. Alford and John R. Hibbing piece that preceded their piece “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?,” which was featured on the tdaxp post “The DNA of Politics.” In this earlier work they tie together wary cooperation and multilevel selection” to propose a new paradigm for political science. It’s so good, it’s dangerous.

As with the other work, a finding is that political beliefs are more genetically-based than personal attitudes.” As Alford and Hibbing write:

A 1986 study by Martin and colleagues of over 3,800 Australian and British twin pairs reported the following estimates of heritability (on a scale of 0 to 1.0) for the following items: death penalty, 0.51; white superiority, 0.40; royalty, 0.44; apartheid, 0.43; disarmament, 0.38; censorship, 0.41. The heritability estimate for pajama parties, on the other hand, was a mere 0.08. The comparable estimates for the influence of shared environment were: death penalty, 0.00; white superiority, 0.09; royalty, 0.14; apartheid, 0.05; disarmament, 0.00; censorship, 0.03 (but pajama parties, 0.44). (Alford and Hibbing 715)

These can be mapped onto the Orientation stage of John Boyd’s OODA Loop


like so:

The three categories allowed by the analysis of twin studies are genetic factors, which are very high for political issues but lower for moral issues and tastes

Social factors, which are very low for political issues (especially hot buttons like the death penalty and the then-issue of South African ) Apartheid but a significant factors in the appropriateness of pajama parties

If there is an uplifting, ennobling finding here, it is the important of non-shared environmental factors, what Boyd would have termed new information, previous experiences, and analyses/synthesis.

The rest of the notes are mad cool, dealing with group selection, problems a SysAdmin force may face, some cool simulations, and other amazing nifty things. They’re below the fold.

Most important, the theory should not be dismissed because of an unscientific aversion to its implications. (Alford and Hibbing 707)

Multilevel selection begins by recognizing the ubiquity of selection pressure. … The genes themselves are, after all, merely survival machines for the complex proteins that make up genetic material. At this deeper level, it is the complex proteins that are selfish, and their survival machines—the genes—may behave in ways that seem highly inconsistent with selfishness.11 In terms of human behavior, if we think of groups as survival machines for collections of individuals, then selection pressures that lead individuals to behave selfishly may well be in conflict with selection pressures that favor groups of individuals that behave in concert. (Alford and Hibbing 708)

In that spirit we offer our own theory of “wary cooperation” drawn from the work of leading scholars in evolutionary psychology and experimental economics. The theory may be summarized as follows. Humans are cooperative, but not altruistic; competitive, but not exclusively so. We have an innate inclination to cooperate, particularly within defined group boundaries, but we are also highly sensitive to selfish actions on the part of other group members. This sensitivity leads us to cease cooperating when that cooperation is not reciprocated, to avoid future interaction with noncooperators, and even to engage in personally costly punishment of individuals who fail to cooperate. (Alford and Hibbing 709)

Our genetic composition is to some extent the product of conditions faced by our hunter-gatherer predecessors of perhaps 100,000 years ago. One of the keys to an individual’s survival was being a respected part of a viable group. The central insight of a behavioral theory built on evolutionary biology is that the desire for group life is a fundamental human preference. What kinds of behaviors optimally promote belonging to a viable group? (Alford and Hibbing 709)

To sustain group membership, individuals must
1. cooperate with others in their in-group;
2. dislike those in out-groups;
3. punish or banish uncooperative in-group members;
4. encourage others through norms, institutions, or moral
codes to (1), (2), and (3);
5. be ever sensitive to status, payoffs, and reputation relative
to other in-group members;
6. cease cooperating if the noncooperation of other members
goes unpunished. (Alford and Hibbing 710)

In addition to expecting cooperative behavior in some circumstances, our theory also expects—and empirical studies have proven it to be the case—that people mindlessly conform, passively obey authority figures, are competitive to the point of taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, initiate hostilities toward those people in outgroups, construct out-groups for the sake of having them, and are disconcertingly enthusiastic about punishing those not perceived as living up to the group’s behavioral standards, especially when personally victimized. (Alford and Hibbing 710)

For example, it is now thought that children learn languages more quickly than adults in part due to their limited memories. Limitations constrain solution space, allow a scaffolding to guide learning, and suggest patterns. Neural networks designed to simulate language learning actually learn more quickly with less memory—more is not always better. (Alford and Hibbing 710)

As stated by Cosmides and Tooby, “ ‘[R]ational’ decision-making methods . . . are computationally very weak; incapable of solving the natural adaptive problems our ancestors had to solve reliably in order to reproduce.” They conclude that, from an evolutionary point of view, human mental capacities, far from preventing rational thought, actually allow us to be “better than rational.” (Alford and Hibbing 710)

For example, when experimental subjects are shown pictures of individuals and told their names along with a single fact about them, subjects are better at remembering the names of those who had been connected with a social fact (Sally helped a neighbor paint his house) than a nonsocial fact (Tom has an old refrigerator), and they are best at remembering those who had been connected to a negative social fact (Harry did not return a CD he borrowed from his friend). (Alford and Hibbing 711)

People are initially helpful and cooperative, even at some personal expense, but they are hypersensitive to the possibility that someone might take advantage of their generosity. (Alford and Hibbing 711) (SysAdmin implications?)

Since in this view, the conflict of war is a group-level phenomenon, group-level factors become particularly salient. Markers of in-group–out-group boundaries, for example (e.g., borders, language, ethnicity, race, religion, citizenship) should assume exaggerated importance in both the development and prosecution of war. (Alford and Hibbing 712)

Americans’ primary source of dissatisfaction with government is not that it makes bad decisions, but rather that it makes decisions for self-serving rather than common-good reasons. (Alford and Hibbing 712-713)

Reformers would do well to realize that people do not wish to be in control of the political system; they only want those who are in control to be unable to take advantage of their positions. If people were confident that existing constraints prohibited such self-interested actions, they would pay even less attention to the political arena than they do now. For most people, involvement in politics is driven not by a desire to be heard but by a desire to limit the power of others. Current American foreign policy might be improved, for example, if decision makers realized that, like Americans, people in Afghanistan and Iraq do not crave democratic procedures. Kurds simply do not want to be dominated by Sunnis; Sunnis do not want to be dominated by Shiites; Uzbekis by Tajiks; and Tajiks by Pashtuns. People often express a desire for participatory democracy when they really just want to avoid being victimized by a more powerful group. (Alford and Hibbing 713)

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace worked out the details of natural selection at roughly the same time and were in remarkable agreement—with one vital exception. Darwin was completely consistent and contended that natural selection applied to behavioral as well as physical traits. Wallace, on the other hand, drew a bold line between the two, positing that the mental realm was immune to evolution and was instead the purview of ethereal religious uncertainties. (Alford and Hibbing 713)

The most developed examples come from studies of the heritability of traits such as conservatism and altruism. These behaviors have been studied in different twin populations in different countries by different researchers over the last twenty years. All of the studies reach the same conclusion: a predisposition to conservatism is genetically heritable. (Alford and Hibbing 714)

This is not incompatible, and in fact substantially supports Elazar’s basic thesis; moreover, it could help account for the fact that, unlike purely learned orientations, these deeply rooted attitudes might prove surprisingly resistant to the rise of a generic national culture in an era of mass communication and rapid travel. (Alford and Hibbing 716)

If these two individuals happen to be political scientists, we would not be surprised if we found that because they viewed and explained human behavior in starkly different terms, they would largely be talking past each other—as has all too frequently been the case for behavioralists and rational choicers. This suggests that differences in methodology within and across disciplines may derive at least in part from heritable differences in brain physiology. (Alford and Hibbing 716-717)

The most interesting and numerous genes in human beings are not structural (blue eyes or brown), but regulatory. Regulator genes allow an organism to respond to its environment; they are the genes that turn on and off the transcription of other genes (or themselves). (Alford and Hibbing 717)

Interestingly, the computer simulations that we discussed above have demonstrated that (under reasonable assumptions) a population consisting of two types roughly compatible with mildly autistic individuals and wary cooperators, respectively, can reach a stable equilibrium with the larger part of the final population composed of wary cooperators and the smaller remainder behaving more like the mildly autistic. (Alford and Hibbing 717-718)

Part of the problem may be that the last time biology came to the attention of political scientists (in the 1970s, after the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology), they believed that advocates were saying that behavior was determined by biology. If that was ever the position of biology proponents, it is no longer. (Alford and Hibbing 718)