Arnold Kling  

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I've only started The Blind Spot, by William Byers. It is a book on science in our culture. From the preface, p. ix:


I emphasize that I am not condemning science and technology as a whole, nor am I ignorant of the many benefits that science has conferred upon the world. The problem lies not with science but with the point of view that I call the "science of certainty," a particular approach to science in which the need for certainty, power, and control are dominant.

He will go on to say that science is properly understood as an awkward mixture of this science of certainty with a science of wonder, with the latter embracing doubt, curiosity, and creativity. I believe he will say that the public image of science is too fixed on the science of certainty. This made me think that raising the status of scientists could be a bad thing--if it serves only to raise the status of the science of certainty.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book, although I fear being disappointed. I will keep you posted. I have been staying out of the "is economics a science?" issue that has recently captivated many bloggers, but perhaps this book will pull me into it.

For sentences that express the science of certainty, I recently came across Bruce Parker.


Prediction is the very essence of science. We judge the correctness a scientifictheory by its ability to predict specific events. And from a more real-world practical point of view, the primary purpose of science itself is to achieve a prediction capability which will give us some control over our lives and some protection from the environment around us. To avoid the dangers of the world we must be able to predict where and especially when they will happen.

He wants more money to go to scientific research that can be used to predict natural disasters. The Blind Spot will not necessarily contradict that proposal, but I expect it will be more nuanced.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Shangwen writes:

Ian Hacking, the philosopher of science, drew a fascinating conclusion that has always stuck with me. He observed that, as they advance, the hard physical sciences such as physics and chemistry make discoveries that are increasingly at odds with our common-sense and intuitional understanding of reality. Examples of this are the observations that a solid object is more empty space than matter, or that there are more than four dimensions, or that one can do math with the square root of -1.

Social sciences, he observed, behave differently. Some of their claims, even if later falsified, are more likely to be absorbed into common assumptions about human nature or society, and these revised norms in turn will be studied by social scientists and others as if they were real phenomena rather than artefacts of intellectual culture. Examples of this are self-esteem, beliefs in the pervasiveness of mental illness or human perfectibility, and folk beliefs about child development.

I know that is a very broad observation (his, not mine), but it would be interesting to see how it applies to economic ideas. Is the long-standing consensus that minimum wages are harmful, and most people's reaction to it, like a counter-intuitive scientific observation?

david writes:

@shangwen

Presuming the observation to be basically right, one reason could be that - being social animals - our intuitions on social behavior are better than our intuitions on physical behavior. Our intuitive understanding of reality is really, really bad, and you don't even need Einstein for that. Newton will do. Our physical intuition is Aristotelian, for goodness' sake.

Troy Camplin writes:

Then according to Parker, biology is not and has never been, and can never be, a science.

Tracy W writes:

Some of their claims, even if later falsified, are more likely to be absorbed into common assumptions about human nature or society, and these revised norms in turn will be studied by social scientists and others as if they were real phenomena rather than artefacts of intellectual culture.

Can't social phenomena be both real and artefacts of intellectual culture? Where do social phenomena come from, if they're not created by the interactions of humans? Or is it only intellectual culture that is incapable of creating real phenomena while there exist other forms of culture that can create them.

After all a steam engine is an artefact of engineering, but that hardly means that it's imaginary.

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