Selection of scientific theories - metascientific experiment

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Date: Thu May 03 2001 - 08:52:51 BST

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    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,
    verification, falsification.

    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
    sophisticated vocabulary.

    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.

    Best regards


    Literature references:
    Popper, K R: Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach, Oxford 1972.

    Kuhn, Thomas S: The structure of scientific revolutions. Univ. of Chicago
    Press, 1962.

    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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