Monday, May 29, 2006

Another definition of science ...

"... a body of knowledge collected an nurtured by experts according to neutral, objective, and universal standards."
That's from an entertaining article with the staggeringly unoriginal title "The Management Myth" in the June issue of The Atlantic (which was kindly passed on to me by Brother Hrab).

Hmmm, doesn't strike me as a great definition. Who are these "experts"? And what are these "neutral, objective, and universal standards"? But most of all, I still think that science is fundamentally observational. To give some context, the author of the piece, Matthew Stewart, was discussing the historical development of "scientific management". (Full disclosure: I co-authored a paper in the journal Management Science a few years ago.) To my mind, unless there's an attempt to take careful observations, it's not science.

As an aside, I'd like to comment on an ambiguity in the word observational. Sometimes people distinguish experimental from "observational" methods. But of course observation is a component in experimentation; the real distinction is that in experimentation there is planned manipulation of conditions. Sometimes, to evade this distinction, people refer to "natural" experiments, namely observations with coincident variation in potential explanatory factors. But you can't get around the fact that these are not real experiments, and may well suffer from the usual shortcomings of non-experimental studies. And that would be my preference for terminology: experimental versus non-experimental studies. Sometimes people will insist that it's not science if it's not experimental, but this is going too far: it would rule out—among many other sciences—astrophysics and evolutionary biology. Of course there are many challenging issues in analysis of data from non-experimental studies. Consider, for example, the analysis of data from a case-control study. While this epidemiological design is indispensable for investigating rare outcomes and in cases where randomization is not ethical, the problem of confounding can bedevil analysis. Hey, science isn't always easy (certainly not as easy as the textbooks sometimes portray it).

Returning to Stewart's piece in The Atlantic, I think he's at his best skewering management fads and the associated vapid management-speak:
"On the whole ... management has been less than a boon for those who value free and meaningful speech. M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure."
I end with a cartoon that, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure:
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Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

Nick so you think Science is empirical fundamentally. I might have a broader interpretation, but it would still include empiricism -- so essentially I am not disagreeing here.

As suggested before, to me, empiricism appears as one aspect of science.

Even when we have observations to go by, alone they don't mean much without employing reason, deductions and inductions -- the discussion section of a scientific paper for example. Observations then become a base on which thought is built systematically.

All I am saying is that the base can be non-observational and one could still systematically evolve a thought, for example a sound argument. Another example would be a Black Hole. If my understanding serves me right, black holes, are not observed per se but their existence is both deduced and induced from many related observations.

And sometimes observations might be unique to some subjects (and hence not easily verifiable by just anybody) but still repetitive and reproducible (for those particular subjects) on which might have "systematically" evolved a certain thought.

But then observations have their own problems --- limitations. Imgaine what a suffocated understanding that science would give rise to that restricst itself to empericism had we all been confined in two dimensions! Is our empericism alone not likely to be suffocated now that we are in 3 or may be four at the most?

10:29 PM, May 30, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Even when we have observations to go by, alone they don't mean much without employing reason, deductions and inductions -- the discussion section of a scientific paper for example. Observations then become a base on which thought is built systematically.

I agree—in fact I'd expand that to the results section of the paper! My recent post argued that (despite their hazards) models are essential to science. Observations are insufficient!

In fact, I think we can go further than that: as has been pointed out by Thomas Kuhn among others, observations are theory-laden. In other words, what we choose to measure and how we perform those measurements depends on our models. So, if we broaden the intent of your comment, we can expand it to include the methods section of the paper too!

I think there's a complicated interplay between observations and models, induction and deduction. C.S. Peirce argued that there is a third mode of reasoning, which he called abduction. I'm not sure about that, but I think he was trying to address the essential complexity of science, which hasn't always been recognized.

11:05 PM, May 30, 2006  

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