Truth Extends Beyond the Borderlands of Science

The Structure of Science,” by Earnest Nagel, 1961.

Conjectures and Refutations,” by Karl Popper, 1963.

Social Theory and Political Practice,” by Brian Fay, 1975.

The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory,” by Richard Bernstein, 1976.

This is my first “reaction paper” for Scopes & Methods. The first third of this class has focused on how to write a research design. The rest focuses on the epistemology of political science.

The debating topic this week is ‘Just look at all of the advances made by science and you’ll know that the only way to understand human behavior is to study it scientifically. We are limited to two double-spaced pages. I have been assigned to the contrary team.

Those interested in Karl Popper, by the way, may wish to check out the Popper-themed blog, Conjectures and Refutations.

The answer: “Wrong. Just wrong.”

The question: “What are plagiarism, vandalism, and the proposition, ‘Just look at all of the advances made by science and you’ll know that the only way to understand human behavior is to study it scientifically’”?

As the readings show, that statement is wrong on five counts. First, it assumes that inductive thought is valid by itself. Second, it assumes the ability to ascertain absolutely knowledge. Third, it simplistically uses the word ‘scientifically.’ Fourth, even allowing all this, the statement does not provide for normative context. Fifth, the statement’s nonsensical gibberish.

First, as Hume said of intuition “even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have had experience.” There are two ways out of this mess, both of which are proscribed by the statement. The first would be to presupposed that inference — “just [looking]” — is a valid method, but then we are just looking and assuming. Or we may, as Popper does, add in trial-and-error, but then we are looking, trying, and erring!

Second, it is doubtful one can truly “know”. For example, in his defense of social sciences, Nagel qualifies the reach of all science. He acknowledges that objectivity seems to be the same as “relational objectivity” because all objective science appears to rely on perspective. One may trade perspective for another one, but perspectiveleess scientific knowledge appears to be impossible.

Third, as Popper said of science, science and truth are not the same thing. While there is considerable overlap, there is also a lot of difference. What is false can still be scientifically useful, as as Popper says “false theories often serve well enough: most formulae used in engineering or navigation are known to be false, although that may be excellent approximations and easy to handle, and they are used with confidence by people who know them to be false.” Also, recall Nagel’s remarks on the methodological limits of science. He writes that even radical exponents of behaviorism, a scientific form of psychology, “do not deny the existence of conscious mental states; and their rejection of introspection, in favor of the study of overt behavior, was controlled primarily by a methodological concern to base psychology upon publicly observable data.” The truth of conscious mental states do not make them scientifically valid, but their scientific invalidity does not make them untrue. Likewise, Bernstein writes that “few social scientists are willing to suggest that the study of [non-scientific] political and social philosophy has no value whatsoever.”

Fourth, even if all previous criticisms are ignored, the statement remains wrong because it assumes that what we see is beneficial. As Fay writes, “science deprives men of the old faith by which they lived and thus helps destroy the old social order…” and later “the emergence of a core of policy scientists would also support the rise of an active and centralized government.” The issue is not the normative value of the mental health of old people and local governments, to name just these two issues. Rather, normative context requires something outside of “just looking,” and the statement does not provide for any such thing.

Fifth, the statement itself makes no sense. It is clear that the original statement is not scientific, because there it does not make a falsifiable prediction. It is as self-serving as Freudianism or Individual Psychology. However, the statement claimed that the only way to know was scientifically. Therefore, if the statement is true, it is worthless (because of there is only the scientific avenue to knowledge, unscientific statements aren’t reliable guides). But if the statement is false, it may be true (because then non-scientific statements may be valid after all).

When it comes to positivist science-only extremism, “just say no!”

Positivism Notes

This posts is just the lecture notes over the same readings I used for my skeptisism of science debate. There’s more interesting stuff on this blog. Read that instead.

– paleopositivism: “we can positively know the truth”
– postpositivism/neopositivism: “we can approximate the truth”

“brute facts” / “brute data” – things can be observed without interpretation
– acknowledged by paleopositivists
– denied by postpositivists

Basic Tenants of Positivism and Science
1. Explanation and Prediction
2. Induction (paleopositivism) or Hypothetico-Deducation (postpositivists)
3. Objectivity
4. Knowledge is Cumulative (no single study is definitive)
5. Approximation of Scientific Method (experimentation)

Popper on Pseudoscience (Marxism, Freudianism, Adlerism)
Pseudoscience lacks one of the following
1. Observable Facts
2. Risky Predictions
3. Refutability
4. Testability
5. No Conventionalist Twists (personal skepticism of this) — seems like a word game
6. Criterion of Demarcation – difference between right and wrong – so cannot be fuzzy???

discussion of proper popper procedure with theory, hypothesis, and data

Mertin’s (Famous Guy’s) arguments
– argues social sciences are younger, less mature than physical sciences
– supports hypothetico-deductive approach

Nagel’s Counter-Arguments
1. “social sciences face additional obstacles”
– but Nagel says, natural sciences face obstacles too
– (astronomy doesn’t experiment, quantum mechanists effect things with observations, etc)
2. “social sciences are unique; social sciences need more context”
– but Nagel says, even if there are differences, that wouldn’t itself prohibit laws
3. “knowledge of social science becomes a variable itself”
– but this doesn’t prevent laws, and research suggests this factor is slight
4. “social science needs to study internal subjective states”
– then view response as an observable indicator of an internal subjective states
5. “there’s a social influence on our selection of problems”
– topics in all fields are chosen for some reason — that’s not a an argument against subjectivity
6. “social science makes value judgements”
– characterizing value judgements can be scientific (“unstable platforms,” etc)

Fay’s Alternative Argument
1. Finds Causal Laws
2. Gives us the power necessary for control
so social science is ultimately purposed to control the social environment
“only positive social science has the ability to prevent certain events from happening”
3. only scientific arguments are scientifically acceptable (but this is tautological — tdaxp)
4. so we’d argue over means not ends (??????) – HUGE point of departure here
– we all want “good” education, economy, crime-rates — but how to get to “good” (??????)
5. so political leadership becomes meritocratic (????????)
6. efficiency is the best scientific means (???????????????)
7. but “efficiency” is a value
8. and anyway, means and ends can become blurry
9. Positivism is inherently conservative (pro-status-quo)

A Quick Overview of Behavioralism in Political Science
– positivist, but also assumes
1. believe in an individual-level analysis
2. emphasis on quantitative empirical tests
3. Accumulation of Knowledge is slow and painstaking (so research is “boring and tedious”)
4. Humans are naturally social animals, so social, “non-political,” explanations are common
5. All theory is testable and utilitarian
(most of Midwest Behavioralist)

Miniature Political Science Literature Review and Research Design

After last’s semester International Politics class, I posted my literature review on geographical position and post-Communism. In a similar manner, I now post my preliminary lit review and research design for Geopolitics and IGOs.

While the text won’t be too important to anyone, I know at least one student who learned about journal articles from my last bibliography of a political science literature review, so I have included that below.

The weakest part of the research design — I realized I didn’t correctly operationalize my variables as I was handing it on. While it was graded, it was only a preliminary draft, so take it with a grain of salt.

Handed in, the paper was 10 pages, six of which were works cited.

Preliminary Literature Review and Research Design

Mackinder said, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island.” Spykman Geopolitics is full of dicta, but such statements are unscientific unless they can be tested. This study will use intergovernmental organization (IGO) membership to determine the formal political connections between states, and test whether either of the above two geopolitical statements hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Geopolitical questions have been hampered by normative accusations. Charges of imperialism abound (Semmel 1958, Kearns 1999). Likewise its supposed use to denigrate certain nationalities (Gilbert and Parker 1969). Or more generally, “geopolitical discourse” is accused of being “political from the very outset” (Otuathail 1998). The critics of geopolitics sometimes associate it with racism and eugenics (Tyner 1999).

Yet geopolitics helped make geography a science by focusing it on the geographical dimensions of political science (Unstead 1949). Specifically, geopolitics helped explain human affairs (Dawson 1987). The geopolitician Halford Mackinder described his goal as not “to predict a great future for this or that country, but to make a geographical formula into which you could fit any political balance.” (Hall 1955). Indeed, geopolitical analysis has survived changing constellations of great powers and technologies (Hooson 1962). Stable geopolitical concepts have emerged, even as geopolitical scientists disagree as to the exact nature of their relation (Harkavy 2001). Geography is a “conditioning factor” in many parts of politics (Spkyman 1938). The internal (Williams 1927) and external (Enterline 1998) nature of states are effected by geopolitical position, including in areas as serious as war (Midlarsky 1995).

A geopolitical explanation for international governmental organization building would not discredit, but would merely extend, existing explanations. Indeed, the “appearance of objectivity, rationality, and universality” [can underpin IGO’s] power and utility” (Picciotto 1999), so a function in one dimension for an IGO can underpin its function in another. For instance, take four major theories of integration: domestic politics, neofunctionalism, intergovernmentalism, and supranationalism (Corbey 1995). Domestic political perspectives range from claims that domestic politics leave open certain choices to arguing that nearly all foreign policy actions are reflections of internal politics (Lumsdaine 1996). Neo-functionalism “stresses the individual motives of actors,” which may accidentally lead to a “new central authority” because of a series of small steps (Haas 1970). Intergovernmentalism is similar, arguing that governments pursue their best interests, except that intergovernmentalism stresses the importance of treaties themselves while neo-functionalism holds that “treaty revisions invariable spark ‘spillovers’ that empower actors and generate policy dynamics that were unintended by the governments that signed them” (Garrett and Tsebelis 1996). Supranationalism may be summarized by saying that international organizations can themselves become “pro-integration, supranational entrepreneurs that stretch their authority as far as they can to further their own agendas” (Tsebelis and Garregt 2001).

Geopolitics does not refute any of these theories, but gives them flesh by allowing them to operate in a broader world. Private sector companies can push for, and get, their states to pursue geographic and geostrategic objectives (Hunter 2001). This can be indirect and aggregate (Pollack 1997), changing the nature of choices available to actors (Ruggie 1993) and thus are domestic political. Neofunctionalism clearly draws strength from geostrategic concerns, as one summary of neofunctionalism itself might be “the best way to reach peace is by establishing effective regional institutions” (Miller 2005). Intergovernmental, that is to say between state, politics often is informed by geostrategic views in the Caribbean (Griffith 1995), Central Asia (Khidirbekughli 2003), and Europe (Walters 2004). Likewise, one of the most powerful international governmental organizations, the European Union, is a supranational entity with strong geographic elements (Wood 2004).

It is possible that the enumeration strategy of this paper is misleading. The most powerful international organizations can sometimes have short life cycles (Dickenson 1920). The existence of international organizations can be deceptive, if it is not representative of some underlying regime (Haas 1983). Likewise, the number of international organizations has at times rapidly increased (Alger 1970), making analysis more difficult. In addition, it has often been difficult to even compile accurate lists of what international organizations exist, or of their membership (Wallace and Singer 1970). In short, this study may lack validity if membership in international organization is of questionable relevance to real power structures.

The thesis for this study is that states in the European Rimland are more likely to be in IGOs with states in the Heartland than with other states in the Rimland. The independent variable is the geostrategic nature of a state. For this study, geostrategic position is a categorical variable with two possible values: a state can be heartland, Rimland. States fitting neither value are outside the scope of this paper. Heartland is defined as those states who lay predominately east of the Elbe (Hooson 1962, Treivish 2005). For each, state there will be two dependent variables, both based on IGO membership. The first dependent variable will be the number of IGO-state relations if has with Rimland countries, the other will be the number of IGO-state relations it has with heartland countries.

This will be a quantitative study that uses information from the Yearbook of International Organizations, published by the Union of International Associations. The Yearbook has been used for intergovernmental organization membership questions (Barnett and Finnemore 2004, Willets 2001) before either directly (Onea and Russett 1999) or after modification (Shanks, Jacobsen, and Kaplan 1996). The Yearbook is publicly available for a fee (UIA 2006). It contains information on both IGOs created by governments and IGOs that are created by other IGOs.


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