The elephant in the room


Part two of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, examines logical positivism

Before I address Professor Biesta’s reply to the question I posed at the end of part one, I am going to spend two instalments discussing logical positivism. Even though this requires a bit of a philosophical dive, I think it is justified because without understanding the fundamental argument about logical positivism, the more concrete disagreements about educational purpose will be difficult to untangle. The elephant represents the fact that all the other, non-elephantine occupants of the room are divided between two almost completely incompatible ways of thinking about truth and logic—they follow incommensurable paradigms, in the approved, post-modernist jargon—and without understanding that important fact, it will not be possible to understand why so many people seem to be talking past each other, almost as if speaking different languages.

The view that I expressed in my question, that objectives which cannot be measured are for that reason meaningless, follows from the principle of verificationism (and Karl Popper’s variation, falsificationism), which is the central tenet of logical positivism. Taken together, these theories represent a viewpoint that is widely thought of by educationalists as having gone out with the ark, the term “logical positivism” being described by Erie Bredo in the The Philosophy of Education: an Enclyclopedia as “a generalized term of abuse”. The truth of this description has been attested by Greg Ashman in a recent blog-post, On the subject of my irrepressible positivity.

Although educationalists often speak dismissively of logical positivism, it remains fundamental to the practice of natural sciences such as physics. Here, for example, is a passage from Einstein’s 1921 Relativity: the special and general theory, which asks what is meant by a statement that two bolts of lightning occur simultaneously (p.26).

The concept does not exist for the physicist until he has the possibility of discovering whether or not it is fulfilled in an actual case. We require a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, he can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes occurred simultaneously. As long as this requirement is not satisfied, I allow myself to be deceived as a physicist (and of course the same applies if I am not a physicist), when I imagine that I am able to attach a meaning to the statement of simultaneity. (I would ask the reader not to proceed farther until he is fully convinced on this point.)

Einstein’s description of the conditions under which the term “simultaneity” becomes meaningful represents a straight up-and-down statement of the principle of verificationism. Nor is Einstein kidding when suggests non-compliant readers should put down the book: without understanding that the experiment is not just a way of demonstrating simultaneity but is actually what is meant by simultaneity, you simply cannot follow Einstein’s argument. Yet I suggest that modern educationalists who say that we should adopt educational objectives whose attainment we do not know how to ascertain, would in all honesty have to put down Einstein’s book at this point, being unable to accept the basic principle on which all modern science is premised. Educationalists and physicists have incompatible intellectual models of truth and meaning.

This intellectual chasm was expressed in what became known as the Science Wars in the 1990s. The opening shot in these wars was fired in the form of a leading article in the American edition of the Economist, written by Richard Lewontin and entitled 74.6% of Sociology is Bunk:

The GDP of Denmark is not to be found by asking a statistically significant random sample of people to have a stab at it. What people think, still less what they say, is not a good guide to the way the world is. People don’t know. People lie.

Lewontin attacks the methodology of many sociologists (and indeed educationalists), which commonly focuses on attitudinal surveys or, to use the language of Kant, “phenomenological research”. Such a methodology addresses what people think, which will always be influence by their values, rather than “the way the world is”.

A year after Lewontin’s leader, New York physicist Alan Sokal produced what became known as the Sokal hoax. He persuaded a leading academic journal of postmodern cultural studies to publish a spoof article that he himself had written, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which he declared on the day of publication to be:

a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.

The eminent journal that had published this nonsense, and the discipline that it represented, clearly lacked discrimination.

In response to these attacks, educationalists come up with a number of reasons for dismissing logical positivism. It might be applicable, it is said, to the natural sciences, but not to the more complex world of human interactions where causal relationships do not apply; it will narrow our priorities to those things that are easy to measure rather than to things that matter; it tends to propose simplistic silver-bullet, black-and-white answers; it does not take account of the variability of human experience or the multiplicity of causal influences that the teacher must juggle; it does not take account of the importance in education of subjective values.

Most of these objections can be quickly dismissed.

Relativity is not a simple thing to verify. At the time that Einstein formulated the theory, no-one would be able to demonstrate its truth by experimental means for several decades to come. Verificationism does not require that the experiment should be feasible or even accurate. Erie Bredo is wrong to say that positivism can be refuted because any experiment might be flawed, as “maybe the electron microscope one is looking through is not working properly” (ibid p.494). That does not matter. All that the principle requires is that you can state clearly what the experiment would be, if you had the means to conduct it, such that it would produce a definite answer of some sort, right or wrong (read through to the top of page 28 in Einstein’s engaging explanation of this point). Positivism is about creating meaningful statements, not true or certain statements. Nor is it about measuring only what is easy or even possible to measure.

Some people dismiss the methods of quantitative research because of the multiplicity of causal influences in the classroom, which, they claim, invalidates the methodology of quantitative research when applied to the classroom. One such academic writes on a community email reflector:

The weight of positivism is heavy…[but] laboratory-type protocols were insufficient to apply to the educational context because no two classes are the same nor behave the same.

This position demonstrates a failure to understand quantitative research methodology. The whole point of Randomized Control Trials is not to harmonize all the confounding variables but to randomize them. The challenge posed by RCTs is not that they cannot on principle be used in educational contexts, but that to do so they require data of a quality and in a quantity that is not generally produced by our current education system. For that, like Einstein, it seems we must wait.

With respect to the supposed impossibility of predicting causal relationships in human interactions, it is true that one can never be entirely sure how other people will react. That does not mean that conclusions which fall short of certainty are invalid or of no use. It is both possible and useful to know, given certain sorts of precondition, what are likely to be the most effective sorts of action in order to attain a certain sort of objective. This is what an orator learns when she learns how to make a better speech or a policeman when he learns how better to manage a confrontation: it is commonplace that people managing human relationships seek useful knowledge about the probable causal relationships between human actions and human responses. Without such causal relationships, the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience would be impossible.

There is nevertheless one criticism of positivism that is, perhaps, more substantive than the others. This states that the empirical evidence which is used to justify a position is itself value-laden and so the act of justification is circular—rigged, you might say. This is a view that has become influential ever since the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn in 1962.

That will be the subject of part three, which will wrap up my discussion of logical positivism and its critics.

21 thoughts on “The elephant in the room

  1. Operationalisation vs definition
    If I’ve understood Einstein correctly (!) he was saying that ‘simultaneity’ is what happens when two lightning bolts strike at the same time. For physicists, meaning and definition and operationalisation are often one and the same thing. But social scientists don’t deal with relatively simple entities like lightning bolts, they deal with fuzzy constructs that people construe differently or with constructs on which there might be a high level of consensus, but which as far as we know, don’t exist – such as Santa Claus or fairies. So if you are carrying out an empirical study on ‘anger’ or ‘progressivism’ you need to explain very precisely how you are measuring that construct, or what it maps on to within the framework of your study. If you don’t, we end up with a plethora of studies purporting to be about the same thing, when closer inspection shows them to be about different things, or even about things that might not exist in the real world.

    • Thanks for that explanation of operationalisation (this is an overspill from a discussion on Twitter

      I think Einstein was saying something different, which is that the simultaneity of two lighting strikes *means* this: that if you were to anticipate the position of the strikes and find the exact mid-point between them and were to place two mirrors at 45% such that the light from the strikes were deflected onto a light sensor, the sensor would register the light from the two strikes at exactly the same time. In other words, there is something tautological about defining simultaneous as “two lightning bolts strike at the same time” – because that is what you imagine is happening “out there” and your imagination is shaped by the word you are using. He is saying that the definition has to be founded in empirical observation & methodology.

      That maps very precisely, it seems to me, to what you are saying about defining anger. So it seems to me that we are agreeing much more about this that the words we use suggest (I don’t think you are comfortable with “positivism” but use “operationalisation” instead). The other thing that we disagree about is that social science needs to be so very different to natural science in its methodology, because of the complexity of its subject. I would argue (a) that natural science is pretty complex too, and (b) even if human behaviour is not entirely predictable, it is still subject to probabilistic statements which can be verified and which are still useful – and the introduction of uncertainty does not fundamentally change the experimental methodology.

      Finally, I would say (and I suspect that you would not disagree) that having defined different experimental definitions of something like anger (physiological, self-reported, third-party reported etc), we can reasonably expect to show a fairly high level of correlation between these different forms of observational definition. So that the common sense view that there is a single concept called “anger” is almost certainly justified – we just have to approach that slightly elusive common sense concept through a number of more precisely defined technical ways of representing that concept.

      My argument in this series will be that we need to adopt exactly the same methodology with respect to our educational objectives: that we define a number of performative proxies for a fuzzy concept like “creativity”, and demonstrate the consistency (of lack of consistency) between those different proxies by statistical means. But that is going beyond the scope of our original discussion!

      • I think we’re broadly in agreement. Even about Einstein. I just didn’t go into all the detail 😉 But I don’t think ‘positivism’ and ‘operationalisation’ are the same. As I understand it, ‘positivism’ holds that you can know things (for sure), that you can verify them (for sure) and limits empirical findings to observations that can be made using the senses (or proxies for them). By ‘operationalisation’ I mean simply making it clear what parameters are being used for a particular construct in a particular study.

        • Hi Sue,

          That is not my understanding of verificationism. Here, for example, is a definition from Language, Truth and Logic by the twenty-something A J Ayer:

          “A sentence will be factually significant to a given person if and only if he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express; that is, if he knows what observations would lead him under certain conditions to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (p.148)

          Einstein says something very similar (it is worth reading the 2-3 short pages in my link). It is not that the verification must be for sure – it is just that you must state what you would hold such a verification would be. That is why I suggest that it is all about meaning, not about certainty.

          I am not entirely sure what you mean by “what parameters are being used for a particular construct”, but it sounds to be something very similar – the language is not significant but I would rather say “what observable phenomena are to be taken as sufficient to indicate the validity of a particular hypothesis”? Am I right that these two phrases are saying much the same thing?

          I think the distinction (or lack of it) between absolute truth and the arrogance of assuming certainty often hangs around these conversations. I have in some drawer an ancient cassette tape, probably of rather similar vintage to the Ayer conversation that I link to, in which someone, possibly Bryan Magee, comments on the assumption that these two are connected. He makes the point that in fact the opposite is the case: the person who believes in evidence and reason is aware that anything that he or she says can be challenged and shown to be wrong; while the relativist (or the person who says things in terms which cannot be verified/operationalised) is immune from challenge. The methodology of the empirical research does not claim certainty but requires its experiments to be repeatable. This is why Marxist states, Magee continued, which were founded on an ideology that was officially relativist, invariably turned to tyrannies and the intellectual always ended up in the gulag. I think it is a point worth reiterating in the era of “post-truth politics”!


          • Operationalisation is about ensuring that people are talking about the same thing. Whether or not the thing exists or not, or whether you can test hypotheses about are other matters. For example, there have been probably hundreds of studies about ‘motivation’ or ‘stress’. But unless investigators say exactly what they mean by ‘motivation’ or ‘stress’ (usually boiling down to how they measure it) it’s not clear whether or not they are all referring to the same phenomenon – real or otherwise.

            Operationalising constructs is clearly related to verificationism but isn’t the same as it.

            • But your definition of operationalisation (at least in respect of the usual practice of measuring it) is exactly the same as my definition of verificationism (and Ayer’s and Einstein’s, it appears). Doesn’t “testing hypotheses about it” and “measuring it” almost always come down to the same thing? Doesn’t a “statement” come down to the same thing as a “hypothesis”?

              • Say the hypothesis is that ‘x does y’. An experiment demonstrating an instance where x does not do y falsifies the hypothesis.

                I’m not talking about the process of verifying or falsifying the hypothesis, I’m talking about developing a precise enough definition of x and y for the hypothesis to be tested.

                • But x and y also need to be individually verified, to the extent of saying “this set of circumstances amounts to what I mean by x/y”. That could also be seen as a hypothesis. That is what Einstein is talking about: when he states the way that he would verify that two lightning bolts were simultaneous, he is effectively stating how he would verify how any two events were simultaneous. It is the same as defining “simultaneous”. So once you have defined x and y, it becomes obvious how one should demonstrate that the hypothesis “x is y” is true.

                  I am trying furiously to agree with you that operationalism is a good thing – but you do not want to be associated with verificationism, I think only on the grounds that you have heard bad things about it oin the street. I still can’t see that they are different in any significant respect.

                • I’m talking about how you would determine what constituted a lightning bolt, not what the lightning bolts do. Lightning, in its various forms, is pretty easy to operationalise compared to a complex construct like ‘progressivism’.

                  But operationalising lightning bolts or progressivism isn’t the same process as testing hypotheses involving them. If the hypothesis is ‘x does y’, operationalisation deals only with the x and y, not the ‘does’.

                  The problem I have with verificationism is that, as I understand it, it implies the possibility of conclusive verification (as well as falsification). As I understand it, Popper’s point about falsification was that you can never conclusively verify anything, because conclusive verification requires knowledge of all possibilities, something we can never have.

                • I know this is an old discussion, but – for what it’s worth – I would say that, whilst operationalisation is a distinct concept to verificationalism, in practice, you can’t operationalise a concept without it being possible to verify it. Otherwise, how would you ever know that you were truly talking about the same thing?

                • And can you also verify a claim without operationalising it?

                  I think not. And if we are both right (that you can neither verify without operationalising, nor operationalise without verifying) I am left thinking that you two need to work a bit harder to support your assertion that these things are distinct. In any way, that is, except in that any self-respecting social scientist is entirely happy to be associated with the language of operationalisation but horrified to be seen to have any truck with verificationism!

  2. Verificationism
    I think the term is misleading. Again, if I’ve understood correctly, it refers to the idea that ‘meaning’ is restricted to phenomena can be verified or falsified empirically. I wouldn’t describe Popper’s idea of falsification principle as variant of it, because our knowledge is incomplete. We can only say conclusively that something doesn’t exist, or an hypothesis isn’t an explanation for something, only if we can demonstrate that. We can’t say anything conclusively about anything else.

    • I would say that meaning is a quality of statements, not of phenomena. So I don’t think verificationism is trying to get reality to fit into the straight jacket of what we can say about reality – you are only talking about what we can say and letting reality look after itself.

      I agree that falsificationism is stronger than verificationism for the reason that you give – that positive statements are provisional, while falsifications tend to be more conclusive. However, I think it is perhaps a bit more complicated than that. As I say in my post, positivism is about meaning, not truth. So all it asks is that you should state the empirical evidence that you would accept as sufficient to verify the statement, not for the empirical evidence that *would* conclusively verify the statement. And I don’t think this is a trivial distinction because it is a commonplace that we have to act on incomplete evidence.

      Second, in the social sciences, which as I admit in my previous reply, everything is likely to be probabilistic, I am not sure that falsification is any more conclusive than verification. You might show that groupwork does *not* work in context x – but that does not disprove that it *would* work in context y. So we are not going to be dealing in crisp, binary true/false assertions, but probabilities and tendencies. That does not mean that the sort of empirical “cash value” (with which I conclude my two part discussion of positivism) is still not vitally important. Which is, again, what I understand you to be saying in relation to the importance of operationalising your definition of anger, I guess in the context of psychology experiments.

  3. Crispin – thank you for directing me to this. My comments here follow-on from the Twitter discussion we were both part of related to the best definition of ‘knowledge’ (which – for those who didn’t see it, for the greater part got stuck between a philosophical description of Justified True Belief, and a Cognitive Science perspective of it being all the stuff – facts, beliefs, skills, understanding etc. – which we have accumulated in our brains.)

    Your point I think was that the simplest way forward was to equate this ‘stuff’ with ‘capability’ so as to avoid the confusion with multiple meanings of ‘knowledge’, and that – unless someone could act on the stuff in their brains, it was meaningless to talk about it.

    I can see now that you were talking about verificationalism, but I do think that what might have been essential for the development of the hard sciences – and was very wise for Einstein to draw a line around – can never really work for the social sciences. My reason for believing this is that pretty much all human conduct is influenced by us possessing a ‘theory of mind’ – the belief that other people also possess the rich inner mental experience of being conscious, having thoughts etc. Consequently, in our brief discussion of Stephen Hawking on Twitter, if he got to the point where he could simply no longer communicate at all with those around him, but was still able to take in information either visually or aurally, then I would believe him capable of still acquiring knowledge and thinking original thoughts – even if he could never share these with anyone. You, as I understand it, would cease to find it meaningful to talk about his having knowledge, thoughts or any other inner experience. (I do agree that we would struggle to really prove that he was having such things.)

    The consequence of taking that route – it would seem to me – would be to adopt some form of a solipsistic approach to life in general. That is, unless we all also ceased to believe in anything going-on in our own minds unless we perceived a real-world action by ourselves (such perceptions might consequently also then be inadmissible as evidence…!).

    The behaviourists initially tried to dismiss any relevance of mental processes, until the cognitive revolution realised that we simply had to open-up the box to explain the richness of behaviour. I suspect that there will also always be a need for a phenomenological approach to explain the fullness of behaviour in others, as well as whatever we experience going on inside ourselves. For example – how else would an alien robot race explain-away the vast amount of literature over the millennia discussing ‘free will’? Without a phenomenological reality, it simply would never have arisen as something to discuss. And indeed, if I didn’t experience something which I believed carried-on irrespective of me acting on it, I wouldn’t now be bothering to write this post… Throughout human society then, a myriad of things are influenced – even if subtly – by us having this theory of mind. We simply will never be able to create a science of human behaviour which can dismiss this, and which yet achieve’s full ecological validity.

    That’s how it seems to me anyway… 😉

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for the slowness in responding.

      Yes, your summary of my position in your first two paragraphs is spot-on.

      In response to your para 3, I agree that educationalists will need a “theory of the mind” – but so do physicists need a theory of matter and energy etc. I don’t think there is any difference in the relationship between evidence and theory in the two cases.

      I am happy to concede that I was being a bit hard-line in my argument about Stephen Hawking. Yes, the idea that a deaf-dumb-mute can still have thoughts, though it cannot be evidenced directly, is at least consistent with our theoretical models, which are at least reliably consistent with our observations – of which we have plenty. And this is covered in the closing sections of my *next* post (“Choose your paradigm”) in which A J Ayer talks about the positivists having been too ambitious in demanding evidence for every single statement, a requirement that he compared to being on the gold standard – unsustainable because there were too many notes and not enough gold. That doesn’t alter the fact, Ayer argues, that the currency as a whole still needs some “cash value”.

      In creating a theoretical model which has overall “cash value”, I would also accept that one’s own subjective experience has evidential value (I have direct experience of my own sense data, after all), so long as I am aware that what I am experiencing is my own sense data and not the world. The supposition that your experience of your sense data is similar to mine strikes me to be a reasonable one, but mainly because you *behave* in such similar ways when reacting to similar stimuli to myself. So I don’t think a lot of the talk that one hears about “Bloody Fool Skinner” really stands up: the theoretical models that we build, whether of mind or of elemental particles, always ultimately depend on observable behaviours. On the other hand, the importance of observing behaviour does not contradict the importance of having a theory, which can predict behaviours which have not yet been observed.

      I wonder whether the point at which our positions diverge is in our different understandings of what is involved in having a theory. For me, the theoretical model is a sort of aggregation and distillation of evidential experience in a form that appeals to our imaginations. In his Cogito, Descartes talks about the theory of the soul in this way: most people think of the soul as some sort of glowing light or whispy smoke – i.e. in ways that can be pictured, just as school-children are encouraged to picture neutrons and electrons as coloured billiard balls. But (in language which is very close to that of the positivist), to the logical thinker, Descartes claims that the soul is defined as the thing that thinks and is, in the act of introspection, *observed* to be thinking. I think that for a lot of social scientists, having a theory seems to be about coming up with a subjective (i.e. un-evidenced, value-laden) position – but for Descartes talking about the soul, just as much as for Einstein talking about space and time, theories are not just entirely built on, but actually composed of the compressed stuff of empirical evidence.

      I don’t think solipsism really matters. However nice (and useful) it is to talk these things through, I don’t have to convince you of anything before I am justified in believing it myself (which is where social theories of knowledge rather fall down, I think). So I have no problem with private evidence based on introspection. Trying to aggregate such evidence that can be experienced but not reliably reported, which is what social science attempts to do through phenomenological research, seems to me to be altogether more problematic.


      • If the below comes up twice, it’s because it currently doesn’t appear to have accepted the comment I posted earlier!

        Hello again Crispin – thank you very much indeed for your insightful response above, it takes the argument further forward than I thought it might go.

        I think it could be that we are actually in full agreement with each other – but if you don’t mind, I wish to clarify things as I progress, so that I don’t waste your time with irrelevances, as it seems to me that your conclusions are not what I’d thought they were going to be.

        I thought, when I came to this discussion, that you were suggesting that a full science of human experience and functioning – both social and individual – could be conducted through analysis of verifiable behaviours – (which included a suggestion that the only sense in which knowledge could meaningfully be talked about would be in terms of capabilities. I suggested that our personal experience of ‘inner life’ and our assumption of the same in others led to our behaving in ways which couldn’t be fully interpreted based on a purely verifiable behavioural science. [Indeed, I have subsequently pondered to myself whether such an approach would be akin to viewing human behaviour in the way that extremely autistic people do (at this point I am aware that Sue is a specialist in this area). Simon Baron-Cohen has portrayed the autistic condition as an imbalance in two human functioning dimensions: Empathy vs Systematisation. The autistic person has the empathy dial turned right down, so they can only judge others through the objective logic of external criteria. Would their viewpoint – or a science taking the same approach – be able to give a full account of human functioning?]

        However, you have pointed-out here that, in verifying behaviours, we can draw-upon our own direct subjective experience as part of this verification process – so we CAN judge things from the perspective of there being an inner life – but ONLY our own personal experience can be of value here, as we have no real access to any other person’s inner life. In other words, we can only make suppositions, which in everyday life can lead to a lot of mutual understanding and harmony (less so with Autism), but which it is clear the flawed nature of which can also lead to a lot of misunderstandings and disharmony too.

        So, as you say, we can’t use aggregates of human experience to give us a human science of any real precision. It would seem from what you say that we can never get beyond a particular level of certainty regarding social science of any kind, and specifically the science of the mind. Indeed, using your comparison with physicists’ ‘theory of matter’, I think the key difference is that – whilst the subatomic particles might themselves be very hard to observe, physicists can be united by the maths which underlies the predication of such things. I’m not sure that there is any such logical imperative which takes us to jointly predict inner phenomenological experience other than us saying to each other “Well I experience this thing – do you? Yes? Well, you seem very similar to me in outward behaviours, therefore, I’ll take your word for it.” Perhaps we even short-circuit that logical deduction – perhaps it’s a more automatic intuitive judgement as well, inextricably linked to ‘mirror neurons’ or the such-like.

        Regarding what you say about the nature of theories and the mind, I like the idea that the entities make-up the theory in themselves – that the observation IS the theory (though I’m not sure where else this can also be said to be the case). Our experience of consciousness is, in itself, our pre-eminent personal theory about it. Every theory about what creates it is a 3rd person posit about a 1st person direct knowledge, and can never quite replace it. To say that consciousness is an illusion, begs the response “viewed by what?”, and the ability for this experiential loop to become endlessly recursive and inescapable is even championed by atheist neuroscientists such as Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore with their personal, 1st person explorations and championing of mysticism.

        So to sum, I would agree that we can’t have a fully precise and verifiable science of human experience and behaviour. I personally believe that the messy and imperfect combination of ‘objective’ quantitative research by the social sciences, combined with an appropriate degree of ‘subjective’ qualitative research to give some kind of flesh and context, is probably as good as we’re ever going to get.

  4. Three comments (thanks for the Twitter notification Chris):

    1. Just working my way through Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations. First chapter deals explicitly with the difference and similarities between definitions (sequences of words) and derivations (sequences of statements) that seems to be at the heart of this discussion in relation to facts and truth. Well worth reading him IMO.

    2. I think the social sciences are trickier than the hard sciences only because they deal with higher order effects; they are just more complex to unpack. But it is possible to unpack them, theory of mind or no. I agree that the social sciences might never achieve full ecological validity, but the hard sciences don’t do that either. Our view of everything is probabilistic to a greater or lesser extent.

    3. Lastly, I’d exercise caution in relation to theory of mind – there’s no doubt that people do have theories about what other people are thinking, but ‘theory of mind’ has been reified. I’d also exercise caution about Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories about autism. The autism orthodoxy is heavily ‘top-down’ as far as theory is concerned. Not enough letting the data speak.

    • Thanks Sue – the Popper link sounds very interesting. I’ve downloaded it, but I think I’ll need to read it over time.

      Thanks too for your cautions. I think I meant ‘theory of mind’ in both its developmental and grander ToM sense – the apparent leap of faith which leads us all to imputing an equivalent experience in others to that which we witness in ourselves. Interestingly, I’m just getting towards the end of Daniel Dennett’s recent book “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”, and if his postulated investigative approach of ‘heterophenomenology’ is what he claims it to be, then perhaps I’m over-egging the cake on this one – at least in terms of how much our private phenomenology actually makes a practical difference to anything we ever do.

      My mention of Autism was a metaphorical allusion I guess, to speculate as to whether an objective science can empathise with the myriad 1st person perspectives or not. I am intrigued with your caution about the dominance of theory over data in Autism research Sue – but perhaps my questions about that should be posed somewhere else. Is it akin to the way in which DSM categories build castles in the sky around mental health?

      Beyond this though, I think your portrayal of all science being probabilistic is spot on, and I accept your description of the difference between harder/softer sciences simply being about complexity.

      Curiously though, this had led me to see a much more fundamental problem I think regarding the limits of approaching the Social Sciences in the same way as the Natural Sciences, but my expansion of this is possibly too long and out of place for here, so I’m turning it into a blog post. Will post a link here when complete.

      • I agree that all science is probabilistic and that, where dealing with human behaviours, the probabilities will generally be lower than when dealing with physical processes. But this strikes me as a difference of degree, not of principle.

        With reference to the place of phenomenology in the social sciences, I think the underlying question in the context of this blog is, is education a social science? I think many academics treat it that way because of their own interests, context and hinterland – but this is an “is” and not an “ought”. Educationists seem frequently to advocate a difference in principle with the physical sciences because education is “value based”.

        My argument is that (1) deciding on the ends of education might be value based but pedagogy – the means of education given particular predetermined ends – is an objective science. (2) contra eg Biesta & Hammersley, there is no difficulty in separating ends and means, the failure to do so being down to a deliberate conflation by social-science-minded educationalists and not any intrinsic difficulty, (3) The selection of educational ends is not the job of teachers (or by extension, educationalists) but of society more widely. The job of the educationalist in this respect is to facilitate that wider discussion by describing educational objectives clearly and unambiguously – something that they have been very bad at doing.

      • I’ve found Popper pretty accessible, but his reasoning is dense, so it takes time to work through his arguments.

        I understand what you mean by theory of mind. And yes, there is much castle-in-the-sky thinking in autism research. It could be argued that ‘autism’ itself is one.

        Completely agree that the social sciences and natural sciences need different approaches; each domain of enquiry will need its own tailored approach due to what’s being researched.

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