“The Limits of Science” About the scientific method and its impact, applying it to the human sciences

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”

Freakonomics Podcast: Abortion and Crime, Revisited

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.

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Does mentoring “at risk” youth do more harm than good? The fascinating “Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study”

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?”



Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science

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


Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship

“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”


On the nature and fallacies of Economics

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

Continue reading “On the nature and fallacies of Economics”

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

Knowledge Questions: What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? How do we produce knowledge in the sciences? What impact does knowledge have on the knower?

This article brings together so many interesting issues in TOK and the problems associated with knowledge and its production. There are connections in this article to memory, the scientific method, the replication crisis, reason, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance (think Trump and Theranos, or the advice your career counselor gave you when going into job interviews). At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. Humbling moments too easily can turn into moments of humiliation.



Nosek was so taken with the importance of redoing old experiments that he had also rallied more than 50 like-minded researchers across the country to participate in something he called the Reproducibility Project. The aim was to redo about 50 studies from three prominent psychology journals, to establish an estimate of how often modern psychology turns up false positive results.

It was little wonder, then, that funders didn’t come running to support Nosek: He wasn’t promising novel findings, he was promising to question them. So he ran his projects on a shoestring budget, self-­financing them with his own earnings from corporate speaking engagements on his research about bias.


Thomas Bayes and the crisis in science

Science is currently said to be suffering a “replicability crisis”. Over the last few years a worrying number of widely accepted findings in psychology, medicine and other disciplines have failed to be confirmed by repetitions of the original experiments. Well-known psychological results that have proved hard to reproduce include the claim that new-born babies imitate their mothers’ facial expressions and that will power is a limited resource that becomes depleted through use. In medicine, the drug companies Bayer and Amgen, frustrated by the slow progress of drug development, discovered that more than three-quarters of the basic science studies they were relying on didn’t stand up when repeated. When the journal Naturepolled 1,500 scientists in 2016, 70 per cent said they had failed to reproduce another scientist’s results.

This crisis of reproducibility has occasioned much wringing of hands. The finger has been pointed at badly designed experiments, not to mention occasional mutterings about rigged data. But the only real surprise is that the problem has taken so long to emerge. The statistical establishment has been reluctant to concede the point, but failures of replication are nothing but the pigeons of significance testing coming home to roost.


The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud.

The most famous psychological studies are often wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. Textbooks need to catch up.

The findings have long been subject to scrutiny — many think of them as more of a dramatic demonstration, a sort-of academic reality show, than a serious bit of science. But these new revelations incited an immediate response. “We must stop celebrating this work,” personality psychologist Simine Vazire tweeted, in response to the article. “It’s anti-scientific. Get it out of textbooks.” Many other psychologists have expressed similar sentiments.


The Lifespan of a Lie

The most famous psychology study of all time was a sham. Why can’t we escape the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Medium Article that goes into greater detail.

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