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!”

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