There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. There is a widespread feeling today that the great scandal of our times is that we lack a scientific theory of consciousness. And so there is a great interdisciplinary effort, involving physicists, computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers, to come up with tenable scientific answers to the questions: what is consciousness? What is the self?
Longer read but really thoughtful discussion of the scientific method and its limits but also reflects on the extent to which we can know about things the closer we get to them and the more information we can gather. Some interesting passages quoted below.
“The closer we get to our subject and the more we know, however, the more the scientific method breaks down. An astronomer can feel comfortable calling a faraway star’s path a line, even though it may curve out there at the edge of the universe; he can assume the scientific method has revealed the truth, and it will likely never be disproven. But as a doctor, I can’t focus on a few facts to the exclusion of others, for life is the level on which I work. In the operating room, I see people react differently to anesthesia all the time; I see lines become curves. I see a patient’s facial expression convey more than a supposedly objective measurement. I see the chaos of a dappled skin pattern convey more accurate information than what the scientific method has built out of carefully isolated details.
“And though there is a great deal of variety in how human bodies react, it is nothing compared to the variety and unpredictability of human behavior. This is the level on which social scientists, human scientists, and psychologists work, and, unlike faraway stars, human life is something that we know Continue reading ““The Limits of Science” About the scientific method and its impact, applying it to the human sciences”
The authors of the book, Freakonomics, created some controversy when they laid out the case that the legalization of abortion in the United States in the 1970s was largely responsible for the dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s and beyond. In this podcast, the main author and economist behind the study discusses the fallout and criticism from that case but more importantly discusses several important concepts related to the human sciences and how people acquire knowledge generally.
Some interesting moments:
33 minutes: the challenges for a layperson to learn about social science research and the limitations of media reporting and sensationalism. Also talks about the nature of creating knowledge in economics.
47 minutes: on the challenges of explaining to people what economists do and the validity of their methods despite seeming sophisticated to the nonexpert.
The “Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study” was a fascinating study in constructing knowledge in the human sciences but more importantly, using scientific methods to come to conclusions that seem to be completely counterintuitive: that mentorship programs can do more harm than not intervening in the lives of children considered at risk. The Freakonomics episode linked below gets into great detail about this.
Freakonomics Podcast: When Helping Hurts
Jump ahead to the 6 minute mark to hear about the “Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study”
Charities aren’t doing enough to determine if they’re really making a difference
First do no harm. It’s a basic tenet of medicine. When intervening in peoples lives – even with good intentions – we need to check whether we are doing them any damage. But sadly, this key principle from the medical profession has not been taken to heart by charities.
Similar to an older post “How do we measure the effectiveness of charitable giving?”
Worthwhile article that examines the nature of knowledge in the social sciences as well as its limitations caused by human limitations and the structure of our institutions that produce knowledge.
If moral arguments for equality or against corporal discipline are constructed on a foundation of faulty science, then the foundations of that morality collapse as the faults are exposed. It is far safer to ensure that moral arguments remain independent of scientific claims—to argue, for instance, that gender equality is a moral imperative irrespective of whether or not gender differences are biological, or that hitting children is wrong irrespective of whether it leads to negative outcomes for the child.
Interestingly, here is another post from the same publication coming to the opposite conclusion about spanking which also speaks to the nature of the production of knowledge in the human sciences
“Something has gone wrong in the university — especially in certain fields within the humanities,” the three authors of the fake papers wrote in an article in the online journal Areo explaining what they had done. “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields.”
Their original post”
Below are a few different articles on the shortcomings and false assumptions of modern economics. What’s central to each of these is the difference between the human sciences and the natural sciences and the consequences of mistaking one for the other. Economics is a social science and many problems arise when we treat it as if, because of its sophisticated mathematical models, that it is like a natural science. The last article is an interesting example of the important of models when trying to understand reality.
Old economics is based on false ‘laws of physics’ – new economics can save us
It is time to ditch the belief that economies obey rigid mechanical rules, which has widened inequality and polluted our planet. Economics is evolving
In the 1870s, a handful of aspiring economists hoped to make economics a science as reputable as physics. Awed by Newton’s insights on the physical laws of motion – laws that so elegantly describe the trajectory of falling apples and orbiting moons – they sought to create an economic theory that matched his legacy.
Their mechanical metaphor sounds authoritative, but it was ill-chosen from the start