Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id IAA21388 (8.6.9/5.3[ref email@example.com] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from firstname.lastname@example.org); Thu, 3 May 2001 08:55:22 +0100 Message-Id: <email@example.com> X-Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org X-Mailer: Windows Eudora Light Version 3.0.1 (32) Date: Thu, 03 May 2001 09:52:51 +0200 To: email@example.com From: Metascience <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Selection of scientific theories - metascientific experiment Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii" Sender: email@example.com Precedence: bulk Reply-To: firstname.lastname@example.org
Selection of scientific theories - Proposal for a metascientific research
It is generally acknowledged that the progress of scientific knowledge is a
selection process. Good theories are preserved, while bad theories are
rejected. This fits perfectly into a memetics framework.
I want to study the selection process that controls the development of the
soft sciences, and I am writing this message to solicit your advise on how
to carry out this research, your comments on the methodology I am
proposing, and possibly your participation and help.
The hypothesis I want to test is as follows:
In the hard sciences, theories are tested by means of experiments in a
well-defined manner. There is almost universal agreement on the criteria
for selecting the best theories: logic, experiment, reproducibility,
In the more soft sciences, however, experiments are difficult to carry out
and difficult to interpret. The softer the science, the more difficult it
is to make rigorous tests because of the complexity and fuzziness of the
phenomena. In sciences like psychology and sociology, researchers may
refrain from testing their theories through experiments for practical,
economic, or ethic reasons, or because they have not been trained to do so.
But, obviously, theories within these sciences are still being selected.
The important question is now: Which selection criteria are controlling the
development of the soft sciences?
Social and psychological phenomena are so complex, that any simple theory
about cause and effect will have exceptions. Thus, causal or mechanistic
theories within these sciences are very vulnerable to falsification.
Opponents of a theory can always find an exception, which the theory can't
explain. There are two possibilities for dealing with such a problem: (1)
refining the theory so that the exception is accounted for, or: (2)
rejecting the theory completely.
Now, my claim is that certain scientific communities are choosing option
(2) so often, that most falsifiable theories are rejected. The long-term
outcome of this selection process is that most of the theories that remain
are non-falsifiable, and thus not scientific in Popper's sense.
I have met many sociologists who completely reject all mechanistic
cause-and-effect theories. What remains in their scientific universe is
definitions, interpretations, and holistic theories - nothing falsifiable.
Paradoxically, they are still paying lip service to Popper's criterion of
falsifiability. (The holistic theories say that every phenomenon has an
infinite number of causes. Any claim that a certain observation falsifies
the theory can always be rejected by saying that some causal factor has not
been accounted for).
Other selection criteria that control the development of the soft sciences
psychological appeal, politics, ideology, funding, tradition, authority,
prestige, and sophisticated terminology. Thus, a new theory is most likely
to be accepted if it appeals emotionally to the referees, if it supports
prevailing political ideologies, if it is easy to obtain funding for more
research to support the theory, if it is not too far from existing
paradigms, if it is supported by reference to the 'big thinkers' who are
regarded as authorities within the research tradition, and if the author
has a high position and is good at boosting his prestige by mastering a
These claims are inflicting a hard blow to many research traditions. In
fact, they have so far-reaching consequences for the soft sciences that
they have to be tested in a more rigorous way than the research they
Therefore, I want to discuss possible ways to test my claims about
selection criteria. I can think of the following methods:
1. Study published articles within the research tradition under scrutiny.
The advantage of this method is that it is a natural experiment without
interference from the experimenter. The disadvantage is that it doesn't
tell which articles have been rejected.
2. Ask journal editors for copies of all articles that have been rejected
within a certain time period as well as all referee reports. This may be
quite a reliable method if editors will cooperate, but most of the rejected
articles will probably turn out to have been rejected for good reasons.
Finding the original paradigm-breaking contributions that have been
rejected will probably be like finding a needle in a haystack.
3. Interviewing referees and editors. While some referees may admit to
ideological bias, few will be able to recognize their own susceptibility to
emotional appeal, and probably nobody will admit that they don't support
the criterion of falsifiability.
4. Send articles to a number of scientists together with a questionnaire
asking how they would judge these articles if they were referees on a
journal within their field. The questionnaire could ask the relevant
questions to elucidate which criteria have influence on the evaluation of
the articles. If the return rate is sufficiently high, this experiment
could give sufficient data for a statistical analysis. There is still the
bias, though, that the scientists know that they are being monitored.
5. Getting bad articles published. This experiment has already been done
excellently by physicist Alan Sokal, who got an article published in a
sociology journal with the title: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a
transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity" (see ref. below). This
article is pure nonsense and parody, but it supports the ideological agenda
of the sociology journal.
6. Getting good articles rejected. This would be the ultimate test for my
claim that certain research traditions are rejecting falsifiable theories.
But there are big problems with such an experiment: Firstly, it would be
very presumptuous to assume that we could write an article so good and
original that every journal ought to accept it. Secondly, the article would
necessarily deviate significantly from the predominant paradigms, and may
be rejected simply for this reason. Those scientists who are deeply
involved in an existing paradigm are very unlikely to accept a new
paradigm, according to Kuhn. To circumvent this problem, we might make the
article resemble an existing paradigm as much as possible, we might present
it as interdisciplinary or as a new paradigm, or we may dress it up as an
improvement to and revival of an old well-known paradigm that has gone out
of fashion. Anyway, we would have to argue with the editor and referees
after rejection in order to elicit all arguments for rejecting the article.
I already have a proposal for a sociology article which would be suited for
experiment 4 or 6. I can't reveal the details here because some journal
editor or referee might read this mailing list.
Anyway, this is a big research project that I can't do alone. I need your
suggestions and help.
Popper, K R: Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach, Oxford 1972.
Kuhn, Thomas S: The structure of scientific revolutions. Univ. of Chicago
Sokal, Alan D: Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative
hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social Text 46/47 vol. 14 no. 1-2 1996 p.
M. Schwartz, Ph.D.
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