Normal Science versus Scientific Attitude: the unscientific side of main-stream research.

I will start with a short of recap, an attempt to keep my discourse organised and relatively linear.
So far, I’ve expressed my aim of trying to make sense of (my own) life by exploiting the explanatory power of the evolutionary perspective. This isn’t a straightforward attempt, and needs to establish some solid grounds; therefore, I’ve started with some foundation posts that hopefully allowed me to clarify a few things about knowledge, beliefs, narratives and the apparent lack of ontological distinction between them. At the same time, I’ve forcefully argued that beliefs that are grounded on evidence are epistemologically superior to those that are not, even if we don’t have any indisputable way to discriminate between knowledge (in the sense of absolute truth) and erroneous beliefs (wrong concepts that one may mistakenly consider knowledge). In essence, I’m saying that one has to rely on evidence (direct or indirect experience) to evaluate the solidity of different and diverging explanations of reality. A lot of words to state the bleeding obvious, I’m afraid.

Anyway, the central role of evidence in my discourse clearly points to the scientific method. In this post, I’ll try to make explicit a fundamental distinction about different epistemological attitudes (lingering on the bleeding obvious once again, but watch out for the conclusion!) that is necessary to start dissecting different scientific approaches. The final aim is to describe and ultimately justify the method that I’ve chosen for my own intellectual quest, the current post is just the first step in this direction.

[Side note: When I started writing this, I wanted to propose my own definition of science, and then realised that it’s a misguided attempt. Science, to most people, means physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and so forth; it is defined as the collection of disciplines that you get to study in science classes at school. The trouble is that I can’t tie my idea of science to any discipline: the definition I have in mind may allow for a science of literature or even a science of astrology (with caveats, see below)! Hence, since arguing against the common usage of language is fatuous, I’ve resolved to focus on Scientific Attitude instead.]

The temptation to use Kuhn is just too great, so, with apologies for being so horribly unoriginal, I will cave in. According to Kuhn, normal science progresses by using a given paradigm to solve more and more puzzles. However, no paradigm can encompass all of reality, some empirical data will inevitably be difficult to explain from within any paradigm and will be seen as an anomaly. Chances are that more and more anomalies will be found and eventually someone will design a new paradigm that is able to account for the known anomalies. This will eventually trigger a paradigm shift, and after a paradigm building period “normal science” will start again, this time under the new paradigm.
The whole description is useful to me because of the similarity between what I’ve described as a “model” and a paradigm. Kuhn is famous for his ambiguous definition of paradigm, so I’ll shamelessly exploit his ambiguity and use my own idea of “model of reality” instead. The classic example applies: Newtonian physics (the model) accounts well for the reality we can experience directly, it can be seen as an encompassing model of reality. However, anomalies can be found when looking at electro-magnetic phenomenons, and also large (astronomic) and small (subatomic) scales. The accumulation of data that can’t be explained with the Newtonian model eventually allowed to formulate new models: for example, relativity and quantum mechanics.

If you accept this substitution (paradigm with model), then we’re ready for the big leap. To me, a Scientific Attitude is one that is ready to use anomalies to constantly challenge the accepted model. To avoid touching sensitive subjects, I’ll use the model of astrology to explain my point.
Say that we live in a society that explains human psychology in terms astrological signs, it sort-of-works because it’s a shared belief, and because the vagueness of the descriptions allows everyone to find some truth in it. One day an innovative insurer decides to join the dots, and to use the current science to create better predictions of risk factors. Since some signs are more prone to let their thoughts wander away from the here and now, the logic prediction is that people born under those signs should have higher probability of provoking car accidents. A statistician is called, collects and collate the data, and finds no correlation between zodiac signs and accident frequencies. Here you have an anomaly, in plain sight, for everyone to see. The standard, “normal science” way to deal with this is to try to tweak the model so to embrace the anomaly. But clearly, most should agree that the correct scientific conclusion is that the whole model is flawed. However, discharging a model is a tricky process as it requires a method to evaluate the two alternatives: on one side, it is frequently possible to modify the model to make it fit (the smarter you are, the more likely it is that you’ll find a way); on the other hand, one would need to throw away what he holds as true and leap into the unknown. I will deal with methods that can be used to make this choice in a future post; for now, I only wish to point out how a person that follows what I consider the scientific attitude is one that always considers this choice, whenever an anomaly is found.

Sounds far-fetched? Well, maybe, but consider the alternative: if you are reluctant to abandon the model of reality that guided you so far, what happens if that model is hopelessly flawed? You will end up raping reality, building an increasingly complex and absurd castle of beliefs, grounded on shaky foundations, that, despite all your efforts, is more and more at odds with reality. If you are not convinced, think of one religion that you really find absurd, and see if it fits my explanation. The people who hold that flawed religion as true are badly mistaken because their belief forces them into more and more improbable intellectual distortions, right? That’s the point: blind faith in one model of reality is the negation of a scientific attitude. It may allow people to account for new data, but only at the expense of building dangerously complex intellectual architectures, forcing them in an exponentially twisted path that can only lead to absurdity or circular arguments.

Before writing this I’ve tried long and hard to find an anomaly that does not fit in the model exposed here: from what I can see, all anti-scientific views of the world are based on some fundamental, unassailable beliefs or dogmas. However, the interesting observation is that a lot of self-declared scientific or quasi-scientific disciplines are also very close to my description of un-scientificness, and even more strikingly, what I’ve described as “normal science” can easily drift into depraved science as well.

All right, here is an example: take the classic Freudian theory of psychoanalysis and dreams interpretation. It’s grounded on Freud’s definitions of Id, Ego and Superego, and worked very well at his time. Was Freud doing science? Without any doubt, yes he was. He built a new model to explain and exploit the data he was observing. The new model was spectacularly better than any other current alternative in explaining the human condition, and allowed to formulate predictions that were useful to help troubled people (indeed, it still is). So, Freud threw away the currently accepted truths, built a new model that could explain a bigger slice of reality and could be used in practical ways to improve our well-being. However, I suspect that current psychoanalysis has abandoned the original scientific attitude and has embraced a fair-and-square anti-scientific posture: neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are producing more and more convincing and powerful explanations of the human condition, and classical Freudian theory has failed to acknowledge its own obsolescence. If you still use Id, Ego and Superego to explain your world, you are refusing to let go of an old model that is demonstrably losing its ability to account for the available evidence. This is utterly unscientific and demonstrates the danger that all scientific endeavours face. [As a side note, I’ve reported about interesting and more convincing theories about dreams here and here]

It’s not that the Freudian view is bad or ill designed, when it emerged it was brilliant, ground-breaking, and immensely useful. However, blind faith on any model may look as science (in fact, according to Kuhn, it can be seen as “normal science”), but is guaranteed to lead into a blind end. This neatly fits into one of my foundation concepts: cognitive attraction (CA). According to CA, the older a belief is, the harder it is to shake it. This applies to individuals (if you’ve based your research and practice on Freud’s theory for 20+ years, what are the chances that you will throw away everything and become an evolutionary psychologist?), but also applies to disciplines (paradigms or models) as a whole: the older paradigms will have a long list of success stories (examples of how they do work) and a larger number of people who embrace them. This makes them hard to shake, so that more and more anomalies are needed to actually ignite a successful paradigm shift. [In the modern Western world, where diversity is cherished, we also see a different phenomenon: a new paradigm is born and gains its own followers while the old one becomes endemic and survives in a parallel strand.] In other words, the more a scientific view is old and widely accepted, the more it is likely that the scientists that embrace it are actually trying to do science while affected by an unscientific attitude.

I’ve promised to deal with the bleeding obvious, and now look, I’ve ended up saying that normal science is likely to be ultimately unscientific (or more precisely, that normal science inherently incorporates the seeds of an unscientific slide) . Wow.

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Posted in Philosophy, Premises, Psychology, Science, Stupidity
5 comments on “Normal Science versus Scientific Attitude: the unscientific side of main-stream research.
  1. […] put such knowledge to the empirical test. This led me to science, and inspired a definition of the Scientific Attitude: an intellectual stance that I see as the foundation of what is known as the Scientific […]

  2. […] to show how my own contributions fit in Lakatos view. In the previous posts, I’ve defined the scientific attitude (see also this post), and added two concepts: the first one is that a correct scientific attitude […]

  3. […] are my own, but also in the sense that knowledge itself  is subjective). The result is another series of posts, that introduced my metaphor of solidity. Real science is what tries to become more and […]

  4. […] is what allows this endeavour to be a scientific effort, so one could say that Coyne's position enables the scientific-ness of the effort, quite the opposite of what I think Coyne wanted to […]

  5. […] science (and I claim to be inspired by a genuine scientific attitude) the same kind of phenomenon can be observed, and may even be formally defined. Ignoring some […]

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