Science, postmodernism and the real world

In a recent blogpost Postmodernism is killing the social sciences, Eoin Lenihan recommends that the social sciences rely on the scientific method “to produce useful and reliable evidence, or objective truths”.  Broadly, I agree with Eoin, but had reservations about the ‘objective truths’ he refers to. In response to a comment on Twitter I noted;postm quote 1

which was similar to a point made by Eoin, “postmodernism originally was a useful criticism of the Scientific Method or dominant narratives and a reminder of the importance of accounting for the subjective experiences of different people and groups.”

Ben Littlewood took issue with me;

quote 2

In the discussion that followed I said science couldn’t claim to know anything for sure. Ben took issue with that too. The test question he asked repeatedly was:

flat earth

simple question

For Ben,


Twitter isn’t the best medium for a discussion of this kind, and I suspect Ben and I might have misunderstood each other. So here, I’m setting out what I think. I’d be interested in what he (and Eoin) has to say.

reason and observation

Something that has perplexed philosophers for millennia is what our senses can tell us about the world. Our senses tell us there’s a real world out there, that it’s knowable, and that we all experience it in more or less the same way. But our senses can deceive us, we can be mistaken in our reasoning, and different people can experience the same event in different ways. So how do we resolve the tension between figuring out what’s actually out there and what we perceive to be out there, between reason and observation, rationalism and empiricism?

Human beings (even philosophers) aren’t great at dealing with uncertainty, so philosophers have tended to favour one pole of the reason-observation axis over the other. As Karl Popper observes in his introduction to Conjectures and Refutations, some (e.g. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz) have opted for the rationalist view, in contrast to, for example, Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Mill’s empiricism.  (I refer to Popper throughout this post because of his focus on the context and outcomes of the scientific method.)

The difficulty with both perspectives, as Popper points out, is that philosophers have generally come down on one side or the other; either reason trumps observation or vice versa. But the real world isn’t like that; both our reason and our observations tend to be flawed, and both are needed to work out what’s actually out there, so there’s no point trying to decide which is superior. The scientific method developed largely to avoid the errors we tend to make in reasoning and observation.

hypotheses and observations

The scientific method tests hypotheses against observations. If the hypothesis doesn’t fit the observations, we can eliminate it from our enquiries.

It’s relatively easy to rule out a specific hypothesis – because we’re matching only one hypothesis at a time to observations.   It’s much more difficult to come up with an hypothesis that turns out to be a good fit with observations – because our existing knowledge is always incomplete; there might be observations about which we currently have no knowledge.

If  an hypothesis is a good fit with our observations, we can make a working assumption that the hypothesis is true – but it’s only a working assumption. So the conclusions science draws from hypotheses and observations have varying degrees of certainty. We have a high degree of certainty that the earth isn’t flat, we have very little certainty about what causes schizophrenia, and what will happen as a consequence of climate change falls somewhere between the two.

Given the high degree of certainty we have that the earth isn’t flat, why not just say, as Ben does, that we’re certain about it and call it an objective fact? Because doing so in a discussion about the scientific method and postmodernism, opens a can of pointless worms. Here are some of them.

-What level of certainty would make a conclusion ‘certain’? 100%, 75%, 51%?

-How would we determine the level of certainty? It would be feasible to put a number on an evaluation of the evidence (for and against) but that would get us into the kind of arguments about methodology that have surrounded p values. And would an hypothesis with 80% support be considered certain, whereas a competing hypothesis with only 75% support might be prematurely eliminated?

-Who would decide whether a conclusion was certain or not? You could bet your bottom dollar it wouldn’t be the people at the receiving end of a morally suspect idea that had nonetheless reached an arbitrary certainty threshold.  The same questions apply to deciding whether something is a ‘fact’ or not.

-Then there’s ‘objectivity’. Ironically, there’s a high degree of certainty that objectivity, in reasoning and observation, is challenging for us even when armed with the scientific method.

life in the real world

All these problematic worms can be avoided by not making claims about ‘100% certainty’ and ‘objective facts’ in the first place.  Because it’s so complex, and because our knowledge about it is incomplete, the real world isn’t a 100%-certain-objective-fact kind of a place. Scientists are accustomed to working with margins of error and probabilities that would likely give philosophers and pure mathematicians sleepless nights. As Popper implies in The Open Society and its Enemies the human craving for certainty has led to a great deal of knowledge of what’s actually out there, but also to a preoccupation with precise definitions and the worst excesses of scholasticism – “treating what is vague as if it were precise“.*

I declined to answer Ben’s ‘simple question’ because in the context of the discussion it’s the wrong kind of question. It begs further questions about what is meant by certainty, objectivity and facts, to which a yes/no answer can’t do justice. I suspect that if I’d said ‘yes, it is certain that the earth isn’t flat’, Ben would have said ‘there you are, science can be certain about things’ and the can of pointless worms would have been opened. Which brings me on to my comment about postmodernism, that the root cause of postmodernism was the belief that science can produce objective truth.

postmodernism, science and objective truth

The 19th and 20th centuries were characterised by movements in thinking that were in large part reactions against previous movements. The urbanisation and mechanisation of the industrial revolution prompted Romanticism. Positivism (belief in verification using the scientific method) was in part a reaction to Romanticism, as was Modernism (questioning and rejecting traditional assumptions). Postmodernism, with its emphasis on scepticism and relativism was, in turn, a reaction to Modernism and Positivism, which is why I think claims about objective truth (as distinct from the scientific method per se) are a root cause of postmodernism.

I would agree with Eoin that postmodernism, taken to its logical conclusion, has had a hugely detrimental impact on the social sciences. At the heart of the problem however, is not postmodernism as such, but the logical conclusion bit. That’s because the real world isn’t a logical-conclusion kind of a place either.   I can’t locate where he says it, but at one point Popper points out that the world of philosophy and mathematicians (and, I would add, many postmodernists) isn’t like the real world. Philosophy and mathematics are highly abstracted fields. Philosophers and mathematicians explore principles abstracted from the real world. That’s OK as far as it goes. Clearing away messy real-world complications and looking at abstracted principles has resulted in some very useful outcomes.

It’s when philosophers and mathematicians start inappropriately imposing on the real world ideas such as precise definitions, objective truths, facts, logical conclusions and pervasive scepticism and relativism that things go awry, because the real world isn’t a place where you can always define things precisely, be objective, discover true truths, follow things to their logical conclusion, nor be thoroughly sceptical and relativistic. Philosophy and mathematics have made some major contributions to the scientific method obviously, but they are not the scientific method. The job of the scientific method is to reduce the risk of errors, not to reveal objective truths about the world. It might do that, but if we can’t be sure whether it has or not, it’s pointless to make such claims. It’s equally pointless to conclude that if we can’t know anything for certain, everything must be equally uncertain, or that if everything is relative, everything has equal weight. It isn’t and it doesn’t.

My understanding of the scientific method is that it has to be fit for purpose; good enough to do its job. Not being able to define everything exactly, or arrive at conclusively objective truths, facts and logical conclusions doesn’t mean that we can be sure of nothing. Nor does it mean that anything goes. Nor that some sort of ‘balance’ between positivism and postmodernism is required.

We can instead, evaluate the evidence, work with what conclusions appear reasonably certain, and correct errors as they become apparent. The simple expedient of acknowledging that the real world is complex and messy but not intractably complex and messy, and the scientific method can, at best, produce a best guess at what’s actually out there, bypasses pointless arguments about exact definitions, objectivity, truth and logicality. I’d be interested to know what Ben thinks.


* Popper is quoting FP Ramsay, a close friend of Wittgenstein (The Open Society and its Enemies, vol II, p. 11)


Popper K. (2003).  The Open Society and its Enemies vol. II: Hegel and Marx, Routledge (first published 1945).

Popper, K. (2002).  Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge (first published 1963).











how to run a government – or not

A decade ago, the then government heard the cries of overworked teachers and implemented an initiative intended to reduce their workload. Statutory planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time was introduced; teachers were to be freed up from at least 10% of their contact time with students. My children’s primary school sent a letter home about it. Cover was to be provided by teaching assistants.

Since time immemorial, teachers’ working days have been relatively short- if somewhat intense – and they’ve had long vacations (not ‘holidays’, note), giving them ample time for PPA. So why the sudden need to resort to statutory guidance in order to give teachers time to carry out an integral part of their job?

The answer, of course, is that since the Education Reform Act 1988 an entire performance industry had sprouted from the education system, and teachers spent so much time servicing its bureaucratic demands they didn’t have time to do their jobs. But the reasons why PPA time needed safeguarding didn’t appear to have been considered by government.

Baffled, and concerned about both the need for and consequences of this initiative, I wrote to the school, our LA and the Department for Education and Skills (DES). Rather to my surprise, I got replies from each of them, the gist of which was along these lines:

School: *Sigh*. Yes, quite, but we’ll do our best (with yet another initiative that requires yet more reorganisation).

LA: (Phone call from primary HT seconded to LA.) You’ve summed up our concerns exactly. Do we have permission to quote you?

DES: (A month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to the points you made as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to your concerns as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We’ve addressed the problem of teachers’ workload. If it doesn’t work, it’s the schools’ and LAs’ fault.

I also wrote to Boots’ Health & Beauty Magazine, which had featured an article about an over-worked teacher. It recommended products she could use to help her sleep, relax, boost her immune system and look less tired. There was no mention of the possibility of reducing her working hours. Their response? Essentially “teachers’ working hours are nothing to do with us”.

Taken at face value, the statutory guidance was successful. Teachers did get additional PPA time. But ten years on it doesn’t appear to have made a significant dent in their workload. That’s because PPA time itself wasn’t the cause of the problem.

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy

The impact (positive and negative) of the PPA initiative illustrates the flaw at the heart of Sir Michael Barber’s ‘delivery science’ (formerly known as ‘deliverology’) described in detail in his latest book, How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Barber, a former history teacher, Hackney councillor, NUT official and education policy adviser, was head of Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) from 2001-2005. He’s since worked for McKinsey and is currently chief education adviser to educational publishers Pearson.

The Delivery Unit’s job was to ensure that policies were actually implemented. Part of the Prime Ministerial role is to co-ordinate government so having a team dedicated to tracking the progress of particular policies and removing obstacles from their path makes sense. In How to Run a Government, Barber discusses prioritisation, organisation, strategy, planning, routines, problem-solving, ensuring that policies are well-established and that the outcomes are what the electorate wants. He describes the tools and processes the PMDU used to get the job done. On the face of it, his book could be viewed as a practical handbook for anyone who, with little experience, has been tasked with chasing up the progress of particular policies. Or as a project management primer that doesn’t refer directly to the substantial existing literature on the subject. It also offers intriguing insights into how the Blair government functioned.

But scratch the surface and underneath you find something rather different. Barber calls his book How to Run a Government but it’s actually about how to run a Delivery Unit – not quite the same thing. Barber appears to think that the narrow focus required of his Delivery Unit means it’s OK to adopt an equally narrow frame of reference. And for Barber a government and a Delivery Unit amount to the same thing because he attributes inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in modern governments to the failure to implement promised policies. He twice cites Margaret Thatcher’s famous exasperated; “Don’t tell me what. I know what. Tell me how”. For Delivery Units the ‘what’ might be secondary. But for government it’s of primary importance.

what governments do

Traditionally, the focus of central government has been national security; the defence of the realm and the maintenance of law and order. But in recent years governments have gradually taken on what were once local responsibilities – utilities, transport, education, health and welfare. And governments are not just making sure the services are functioning and are properly resourced, they are attempting to manage them. There are good reasons why they shouldn’t. One is that government ministers or civil servants are unlikely to have the necessary specialist domain knowledge. Another is the big risk of services being used for political ends rather than for the benefit of the people. Nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, modern government involves co-ordinating the functions of several complex interconnected systems.

Complex interconnected systems are challenging things. Because they are complex and interconnected, what looks like a minor tweak to one bit can have a massive – sometimes catastrophic – impact on another. For example, removing ‘spare’ hospital beds, increasing GPs’ salaries and reducing social care budgets – all measures that in isolation seem perfectly reasonable – have resulted in the current A&E crisis. It’s imperative that people in government have a good understanding of how systems work. Barber’s book shows that they often don’t. Take for example, the origin of government policies.

where policies come from; a systems perspective

In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies Karl Popper suggests that the focus of a democratic government should be on resolving problems; he illustrates the point by highlighting the disasters that have resulted from attempts to instantiate utopian visions. Suppose for a moment that the next UK government agrees with Popper about its problem-solving role. Suppose also that it has accurately identified the most serious problems besetting the nation.

From a systems perspective, the next task would be to check out the causes of those problems. Causes can be complex, but it’s crucial to pinpoint them accurately in order to get the problems sorted. Sometimes a relatively inexpensive tweak to one system can lead to major improvements in several others – effective sanitation and access to clean water lead to big improvements in health and economic prosperity, for example. The specific policies would consist of whatever action was needed in order to address the causes of the problems. Before implementing the policies, government would need to pilot them to check out their actual impact. This is an essential phase because the complexity of system interactions makes it very difficult to predict the exact outcomes of any given change.

In other words, specific policies would emerge from an analysis of the systems within which the problems are embedded. Policies would be evidence-based and their consequences would be fairly predictable. Pilots would allow unintended or unwanted outcomes to be addressed before implementation.

But that’s not how Sir Michael sees policies. For him, they lie ‘somewhere’ between strategy and implementation (p.101). It doesn’t matter if they originate in ideology (p.62) or in the personal preferences of the PM or President (p.182). Barber recognises that policies can have unintended or unwanted outcomes, but attributes those to choosing the wrong targets (e.g. ones beyond the control of the PM – p.11) or to a failure of a target to ‘tell a good story’ or have sufficient ‘moral purpose’ (p.24). And for Barber, pilots and evidence-based policymaking represent an over-cautious approach (p.7).

One advantage of adopting a narrow frame of reference is that you can just focus on getting the job done. Another advantage is that you can overlook the problems that might emerge as a consequence.

looking past the problems

Barber talks with approval about Calvin Coolidge’s use of routine to implement budget cuts (p.164) but refers only in passing to ‘America’ (never mind anywhere else) being ‘plunged into depression’ even though the 1929 economic crash occurred shortly after Coolidge’s term of office ended and was arguably caused by factors he failed to address. Barber mentions the Iraq war only in passing too, in passages that deal in detail with a 5-hour meeting with Barber about asylum seekers (p.182) and Blair’s political capital leaking away (p.209).

In short, Barber’s narrow focus and narrow frame of reference allow him to get on with the job regardless of the consequences. Impressive results for delivery science; maybe not so impressive for the rest of us.

the emerging science of delivery

Barber claims How to Run a Government is about the ‘emerging science’ of delivery (p.xvii). To be sure he sets out 57(!) rules of ‘delivery science’ throughout the text – also gathered together in a convenient appendix. There’s a nine-page bibliography. And almost 300 pages on what Barber has learned about policy implementation. But that doesn’t make delivery a new ‘emerging science’.

Barber thinks it’s new because there are ‘countless books and manuals’ on various aspects of government, “but on how to get things done in government there is almost nothing. No manuals. Virtually no academic literature.” He goes on to say “Surveying the academic literature on the subject of political science…” (p.xvii). Maybe the clue to the missing manuals lies in where Barber looked for them. Maybe what politicians need to know about policy implementation isn’t filed under ‘political science’ because it’s already well-established in other domains.

Much of Barber’s bibliography is drawn from the literature on management; he doesn’t draw on (highly relevant) project management research; and organisational theory dating back at least to Weber (if not to Thucydides) and systems theory (tried and tested across multiple domains) don’t get a mention. In short, delivery isn’t an emerging science at all. What governments need to know about policy development and implementation is already out there. It just needs to be applied. The fact that recent governments have failed to apply it is worrying.

In his introduction, Barber quotes Charles I, who made a bit of a hash of his period as monarch; “There’s more to the doing than bidding it be done”*. There is indeed, but I’m not convinced Michael Barber has realised quite how much more there is.

Barber, M (2008). Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services. Methuen.
Barber, M (2015). How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Allen Lane.
Popper, K (1945/2003). The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: The Spell of Plato. Routledge.

* The source for this quote is cited as Barber’s Instruction to Deliver (2008). In it, the quote is cited without a source. A Google search appears to attribute it to a 2013 RSA lecture by Stein Ringen, mentioned in How to Run a Government. I haven’t watched the Ringen lecture yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to cite Barber. Did Charles I actually say it? Maybe we’ll never know.