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Social Science, Science, and Empirical Study
by Luke Rondinaro
02 July 2002 23:34 UTC
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 Mke Alexander Wrote: (my comments follow in "<>'s) --

[Luke:] Yet, prediction is a broad term and I think there’s a slippery slope to avoid here.  By prediction, we don’t want to imply the scientist is some sort of magical prophet foretelling the future exactly as it’s going to be (mainly because I’m not so sure one can).  With the (semi-)free agency of both individual things and systemic realities as a whole, we aren’t always going to be able to make predictions that are 100% accurate.  Much of prediction still comes down to probabilities, likely scenarios, Chaos Theory, and Complexity.  It has far less to do, I believe, with materialist mechanism in the Newtonian sense as it does with the trend of fluid dynamics in both the physical world (matter and energy) and the world of organisms (biology/biochem./organic chemistry). At least that’s my take on the matter.  What’s yours?

[Mike:] Accurate predictions carry with them the certainties assigned by the predictor.  A scientist who uses celestial mechanics can predict the exact day of the next eclipse of the sun.  On the other hand, tomorrow's weather can only be expressed in terms of probabilities.  Yet our understanding of both phenomena is exactScience knows the precise laws (all of them) that govern weather.  Employing these laws to make predictions is limited both by practical matters and by the fundamental mathematical properties of the equations that govern weather.

Thus, even things (like weather) that are 100% understood (at the fundamental level) might only be predictable in terms of probabilities.  Then there are a whole host of phenomenon that are not completely understood (like weather 150 years ago).  Nevertheless, it was not true that people back then could say nothing about the weatherHistorical records and the obvious cyclical structure to weather (the seasonal cycle) permitted broad probabilistic predictions to be made (e.g. the Farmers Almanac).  This is the level at which my stock market predictions lie

<Your first sentence makes it sound as if prediction is an almost subjectiv[ist] enterprise; it sounds as if – per my own conversation with Francesco Ranci both on and off WSN – the predictor’s ability and methologic range is very much shaped by his/her own mental operations; and thus the basic criteria used to make these predictions and to choose categories/criteria out of which one’s experimentation/results is based is actually a function of the analyst’s own mental activity in designing the experiment.

I have my own reservation about what you’re saying regarding prediction and exact “certainties.”  Aren’t all the predictions we make as scientists actually probabilities?  If Science has mapped a precise set of relationships for weather and so many other kinds of phenomena on earth and in the cosmos at large and scientists truly understand these laws, then why hasn’t Theoretical Physics (for example) finally been able to put together a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) from such precise knowledge?  Why also does it seem like Chaos Theory, Complexity, and the New Physics (as per the material talked about in Paul Davies’s books) are already eroding away at the very foundations of this exact knowledge of science scholarship?  … What do you think?>

[Luke:] Finally, the term “empirical” can be problematic as well.  Empirical investigation can be characterized by both “use tests” as you put it and by actual experimentation. 

[Mike:]  Use tests are a type of experimentation.

<You’re correct.  Use tests are a type of experimentation.  The point I was driving at in drawing my distinction was that use tests and/or better yet “natural experiments” (of the kind mentioned in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel are really different from strict laboratory experimentation, the experimentation and empirical methodology par excellence. 

Here’s the dilemma as I see it.  Laboratory work has largely driven our understanding of what constitutes empirical inquiry and experimentation.  It would be better if longstanding scientific tradition had instead worked from a paradigmatic basis of natural experimentation instead of the lab model, but it didn’t.  (It would have solved many of the problems associated with modern thought’s overemphasis on utilitarianism and the pragmatist, materialist tradition of manifest objects in day-to-day life and personal experience).  But instead the lab tradition has flourished and with it comes a basic assumption/stereotype that “laboratory experimentation = actual experimentation”, and all the others are cheap substitutes that don’t have the rigorous, concrete/practical quality of authentic experimentation in the lab.  Fair enough if people want to believe this.

But, if use tests and natural experiments can be (overall) just as reliable and accurate as lab work, then, this means the intellectual basis of ‘empirical work as strict lab activity” [with all this entails regarding science equaling technology, utilitarian expectations of scientific study, and the pragmatist, materialist idea of a physically concrete, practical world] is flawed.

I’m wondering; what’s your opinion of this notion that in order for something to be truly empirical and scientific, then it has to have lab work as its central operating principle? …  I haven’t heard this one much from many modern thinkers, but instead occasionally from Newtonian fundamentalists and also in turn from Western Classics scholars, Intelligent Design theorists and Creationists (trying to poke holes in Darwinist theory and evolution in general & even Science itself by showing contradictions in what science is supposed to do through lab work and what they are doing now be it through so-called “unscientific” evolutionary theory, mathematical theories like Chaos, and the kinds of science inquiries that don’t hold strictly to the classic Newtonian model , such as Quantum Mechanics and Einstein’s Relativity. >

[Luke:]  And, yet, when we’re speaking about the orientation of our scientific investigation - when we speak about ‘science being empirical’ for instance - I think we’re also focusing on the scope and level of what it is we are studying as our object – (i.e. the specific fluctuations of the Dow & the Nasdaq from day to day, the specific activities of a Bill going through Congress, and so on).  In other words, we’re focusing (to some extent) on the formal distinctions & discrete matter of specific processes/phenomena of those objects or systems we choose to study.

[Mike:]  I'm not sure what you are getting at here.

<“Science being empirical”, “Empirical detail”, etc.

Formulations such as these two and others cause me to wonder whether the meaning of the word “empirical” is somehow changing (to be less about experimental methods and observations and perhaps more about the epistemology of factual detail and specific phenomena).  I may be very wrong on this matter, but it seems to me that the term is taking on an added meaning to itself (that deals with the scope/level of the various kinds of phenomena that are studied in the scientific disciplines).  In other words, a shift is going on from à empirical detail being “the level at which we focus our study in gathering experimental data” to it being “the level at which a specific detailed process is taking place within the object itself that we are studying.”  The first is about what the analyst is doing; the second is about what’s happening in the object itself regarding its natural operations.  The word “empirical” (as in “empirical detail”) seems to be taking this extra second meaning for itself.  It’s becoming a matter not only about the level at which we gather data in an experiment, but also about the actual specificity itself of the object/phenomena/process/system we choose to study as scientists and/or social scientists. 

That is, in terms of the Stock Market examples we’ve been tossing around, there’s the level at which we’re using economic analytical tools (like Elliott Waves and Japanese Candlesticks) and the patterning of the Market itself to make detailed probability-predictions [and looking for specific results that match our particularized projection criteria].  That is the first level of empirical meaning I mentioned.  The second meaning of “empirical” would involve our consideration of the systematic Market process itself (and all aspects of its specified detail) in its natural state regardless of our observations/predictions as analysts.

I really wish I could remember off-hand a few of the sources where I noticed this latter usage of the term, but at this point I can’t.  Tell you what I’ll do instead; I make an internet search of the word “empirical” (+ its variations) and look back through a bunch of my old science and social science books to see what I come up with.  After a few weeks after I gathered some more material on the topic of this word’s usage in a number of sources, I’ll get back to you with the results.>

All the best!

Luke R.

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