In which I muse even more about science vs. philosphy to try to get to grips with why I still feel so bothered.

A long time ago. Well, actually last September, I cursorily followed a debate between biologists and a philosopher – well, my favorite silverback John Wilkins (again). The gist of it (n my mildly biased view, but go read) is that the biologists rather supercilliosly declared that philosophy was useless because it didn’t add something new, unlike the biological sciences. And, Johns position was to defend philosophy, stating rather plainly that it, of course, did not do like science, boldly go where nobody has gone before (or, at least tiptoed into, as there are limits to how bold you can be), but did what philosophy always has done – Stress test ideas.

How I love that phrase. Stress-test ideas. And, this was what I told my students. Why did we insist on them reading philosophy of science? Because philosophers spend time stress-testing ideas, in a very different way than you do as a researcher. Now, they may go wrong. Even hilariously so (don’t we all), like the thought experiments about transplanting the cortex from Adam to Bill – now who is Bill, really? Yes, I understand, thought experiments, but at the time I was confronted with my pal Steve, who had fallen off a motorbike, and was alive solely due to his helmet, although that still had not been enough of a protection for his frontal cortex. So, with patches of bruised cortex, I knew someone who was, well, both distinctly Steve, and distinctly Not Quite Steve, so transplantations of cortex be damned, empirically, that will never work.

I’m still terribly bothered by the Keith Laws/Rupert Reed Debate, and mostly about things Rupert said, that, well, does not compute. And, here, the roles are reversed, with the supercilious philosopher declaring Psychology not a science, and a thoughtful psychologist talking about the doubts and issues of his field. Oh, granted, I’m biased here too.

One thing that still bothers me, right out, is the suggestion that we, well, know immediately (which Keith dealt with nicely, and I touched on earlier) – it just is not the case that we really know what is out there, or that we can trust experience. In fact, I think the research right now is on recovering what can be trusted and how. Understanding how the human psychology has evolved in order to interact reasonably efficiently with the world out there (I’m a fan of Gigerenzer and Gibson). But, I was also bothered by the notion that one needs to take, well, a humanities approach instead.  Hmmmmmm (as neuroskeptic is won’t to say).

I’m really catholic in my interests. I hear people condemn and be prejudiced against ways to look at things, but when I look closer, I tend to find a point, although I never buy the entire point. I buy the weak whorfian hypothesis, but not the strong one. I think I’m doomed to this – to see the point in the most disparate things, and never being able to choose any sides. Well, not quite as strong as that, but it is a bit of a curse.

Which is why I loved Guy Longworth’s post so much. There are overlaps in our ways of knowing.

I’m not schooled in humanist ways of  analyzing. I like quantifying. Quantifying opens mysterious passages and paths, and throws in relief what you don’t understand. You have to confront your assumptions, to wrestle with ever-inadequate definitions. Your handwaves won’t cut it. How little you know becomes clear. There is no way to hide behind an illusion of having things in your grasp, because you have very explicitly been forced to deal with what to keep in, and what to cut out. What you can quantify, and what is still not explained.

I’m not even that good at it. I’ve dabbled in neural nets and dynamical models. I’ve dabbled in stochastic models of very early perceptual processes. I came into this by falling in love with Chaos theory through James Gleick, and proceeding to learn to program basic so I could make my own Mandelbrot sets and Julia sets, and Feigenbaum bifurcations. Which is now 20 years in the past, because I ended up in other detours, still thinking that dynamic systems theory must be important for psychology (my buddy Andrew will concur), but I¨m interested in emotional processing, and not throwing balls, or moving fingers.

Too often I come across an attitude of horror about turning things to numbers, or attempting concilience with a strong wording on just stopping what we’re doing, because, well, what?  Will the numbers defile the field? Maria Konnikova wrote about that, that same September as John wrote about Stress Testing, and I threw it at my new masters students to discuss. To stop?  Why? Don’t you realize that putting things into numbers can open new frontiers much closer than those no-one has gone past in Star Trek? What is this fear of numbers?

And, still, I think the humanities way of looking at things can add, as long as there is not this chasm of being enemies. I spent this weekend with Film Scholars, in an absolutely lovely symposium (rightfully involving good wine, but with an emphasis on mature members of both genders, and not many young lads, as one of them pointed out, speaking of the origin of symposia) – and also involving Tarkovski, French film noir, and Swedish comedy, eyetracking, music and Johnny Depp, and a desire to learn from one another. The film scholars know something about film that I don’t know, and that I can use to learn to unpack human psychology. Filmmakers have developed pragmatic knowledge in how to harness and involve human emotions to the point we are willing to pay or break the law to get our fill of it that is just ready for psychologists to use to untangle and understand what grabs us emotionally. I base my thoughts on what Cialdini did with real life sellers, and the psychology of persuasion).

But, it can’t be the only way, anyway. Why dismiss other ways?

I’m also bothered by the notion that psychology is not a science. By what critera? Who decides? The philosophers? Because I went through the positivists, and the undermining of their position by Sellars, By, yes, Wittgenstein and Quine and Kuhn – second hand through Bem and de Jong. It read like a steampunk noir of the lofty hopes of the Vienna circle to once and for all find the criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff, the astronomy from the astrology, the real science from the pseudoscience, only slowly being undermined from within making it clear that no such clear demarcation exists. We cannot, a priori, define science, and say, yes, this is science, but that is not. And, how tempting, how tempting it can be to rush out into that realtivisic, anything goes, we never know nihilism, because certainty is not possible. But we mustn’t. Well, I don’t want to, Bem & DeJong clearly warns against this (oh, who needs to heed those anyway). I get the allure, I reject it!

How come psychology would not be a science? By what criteria? We go about our business, asking questions and testing them. This is, what I think, Science. Rupert is right when he says there is nothing called the scientific method. Because that is a shorthand, of the many many methods, clever, derived, to try to systematically find out about the world. It is not One method. But, I think, if you squint, or take off your glasses, it has a core of inquiry. Of wondering. OF testing. Realted to a kids (mine) early desire to test. Did I really have magic abilities that I so wanted? But, alas, my thinking did not make the light turn green (not reliably so). My prediction of my mother had clearly more to do with me knowing her well, than with reading minds.  There are, even in science, things to stress-test, and which will fail. Is that popperian? Perhaps not. And, are the philosophers the ones to tell the scientist? The positivists (the original ones) failed – and we need to learn from that.  We learned, there is no clear demarcation. Perhaps a fuzzy one? Because I’m not willing to give up on the notion that the truth (little t) is out there, but that it is stranger than our philosophers have ever dreamt about.

Rupert says it is because it is historic, and we learn. Yes we learn. But learn imperfectly. And, it is historic, like, well, anything that isn’t physics or chemistry, and even there, the time-dimension is important. I recall, from way before (and not from the horses mouth), that Popper didn’t think psychology (Freudian) or Darwinian biology were scientific, because they could not be falsified, because…well. And, that eventually he conceded. At least for Darwin. I agree with him on Freud (as fun as I think it is to read Freud). Stress testing ideas is fine, but should you then really care about the opinions, no matter how well thought through, by those sitting in armchairs writing, and not hanging in labs, looking at Reaction times, and likert scales, and EEG waves (to not speak of brainblobs) and the confusing distributions they make?

We look at learning. We look at change over time. It is a problem. It is a big issue. It means, we cannot have things down pat, and turn it into engineering. Good marketers already know that. Back, in my past life, when I nurtured fancies of artistry, and stayed housed and clothed and fed by working in marketing (which I now have turned into a fun and popular course), the people teaching us the ropes knew that. Marketing can never be turned wholly into formulas, because this year people open the bells and whistles envelopes, and next year they go in the recycling, while the white, business-like envelopes are opened. Testing is key. Marketing is red-queen driven. You can deal! When we replicate, we do not look at trying to do something exactly, because, well, you can’t step in the same river twice (anaximander?) But, the banks changes slower than the water molecules flow by. Good enough. Actually, necessary, because we want to find the invariants across the idiosyncratic. And, you can find invariants, even with learning. It may not be easy, but it is not an impossible goal.

Keith and Guy discussed Feynmans piece on the Cargo Cults, because Rupert brought this up. I love that piece. Way back – well, it is just 8 years,because I have not been that long in this particular business, I assigned that piece to my students to show them that I wouldn’t be able, in psychology, to teach them an engineering algorithm, because psychological science is not like that, and no science is like that, but always involves thinking, and the possibilities of traps and sloppiness.

I don’t include it in any class right now, but I do include the cargo cult, with a lovely picture of a wooden air-plane, and wood flight tower, and torch landing lights in my marketin gcourse, to warn them. Of what? We have all watched so many commercials and ads, and been subject to so many campaigns that it is easy to think that if you just copy that surface, you will be successful, forgetting that, the surface is there for a purpose, and if you forget that the purpose is to speak to your target population (be it to sell, or to persuade them to donate, recycle, or what ever it is your goal is), you will fail.

But, I have also taken pains to point out that imitating is incredibly human and powerful (well, perhaps even beyond human, but we have taken it to several new levels). Do not make the mistake of dismissing the cargo-culters as impossibly and ridiculously backward. Because then, you are simply prejudiced. I’m a fan of Richerson and Boyd – and this ties into the topics of Cialdini that I teach. We imitate those that succeed, because we want that success. It is our first step. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, we make reed-planes, on forest runways, among torch landing lights, although you hope for it to be a good marketing campaign, or scientific endeavor.

But, this is our lot. We want to know. We want to find out. And, we bumble on, going wrong mostly, but we keep trying, and who is to say we are not scientific.

I think it was David Hull (the academic parent of my favorite silver back) – although I may be wrong – who claimed that the majority of all research, all research, will reach dead ends. Like most organisms born. Weeded out. Efficiency doesn’t get better. Science is a process, much like evolution. Well, exactly like Evolution, if I got David right. And, I recall, in my browsing on texts on evolutionary algorithms (and from who? I have no idea. Melanie Mitchell? One of her colleagues? Daniel Dennet or Douglas Hofstadetr?) that if you set off a world in a computer that evolve according to some darwininan principles (genetic algorithms). If you then, thousands of artificial generations later, with plenty of extinction, start out again, using only the species that have been able to survive  – you simply won’t get there again. The extinctions were necessary. The false starts were necessary. The incredible waste of things going nowhere were necessary to go … well… somewhere.

I’m listening to Nassim Taleb’s book on antifragility right now. I think he has a similar point there, on the need for the multiple extinctions – the particular fragility – for the antifragility to emerge.

Psychology has issues now. Crisis. I hope, to emerge into something more robust. But, we are still a science. Perhaps to go extinct, to produce better understanding. The concern I have is with not allowing for the multiple attempts, but only allowing the p>05 successes – and Keith, and plenty others agree with this. I’m bothered by the advise on dressing up (not too much from PLOSone, High impact = truth), which seems so wizard of oz – diploma like. Yes, I get it, but those are things that can be gamed. Then they no longer are signatures of quality

It was late when I first wrote this. I needed some wine, the coherence could be better. But, in an odd, perhaps cathartic way (although the way that Keith Oatley explains it, not in the “let your feelings out” abomination) I needed to put these thoughts in order, and put them out there in cyber space.  I was bothered. I’m still mildly bothered, although I see some nice discussions on Twitter that clearly followed from this. If people just didn’t need to be so tribal.

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About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In which I muse even more about science vs. philosphy to try to get to grips with why I still feel so bothered.

  1. jrsirmans says:

    you used far too many commas. But I agree. Psychology is far beyond this point an established Science.

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