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;
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;
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:
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).