Scientific Updating as a Social Process

Cognitive theories predict that even experts cope with the complexities and ambiguities of world politics by resorting to theory-driven heuristics that allow them: (a) to make confident counterfactual inferences about what would have happened had history gone down a different path (plausible pasts); (b) to generate predictions about what might yet happen (probable futures); (c) to defend both counterfactual beliefs and conditional forecasts from potentially disconfirming data. An interrelated series of studies test these predictions by assessing correlations between ideological world view and beliefs about counterfactual histories (Studies 1 and 2), experimentally manipulating the results of hypothetical archival discoveries bearing on those counterfactual beliefs (Studies 3-5), and by exploring experts’ reactions to the confirmation or disconfirmation of conditional forecasts (Studies 6-12). The results revealed that experts neutralize dissonant data and preserve confidence in their prior assessments by resorting to a complex battery of belief-system defenses that, epistemologically defensible or not, make learning from history a slow process and defections from theoretical camps a rarity.

That’s the abstract to a 1999 AJPS paper by Phil Tetlock (emphasis added; ungated PDF here). Or, as Phil writes in the body of the paper,

The three sets of studies underscore how easy it is even for sophisticated professionals to slip into borderline tautological patterns of thinking about complex path-dependent systems that unfold once and only once. The risk of circularity is particularly pronounced when we examine reasoning about ideologically charged historical counterfactuals.

As noted in a recent post, ongoing debates over who “lost” Iraq or how direct U.S. military intervention in Syria might or might not have prevented wider war in the Middle East are current cases in point.

This morning, though, I’m intrigued by Phil’s point about the rarity of defections from theoretical camps tied to wider belief systems. If that’s right—and I have no reason to doubt that it is—then we should not put much faith in any one expert’s ability to update his or her scientific understanding in response to new information. In other words, we shouldn’t expect science to happen at the level of the individual. Instead, we should look wherever possible at the distribution of beliefs across a community of experts and hope that social cognition is more powerful than our individual minds are.

This evidence should also affect our thinking about how scientific change occurs. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (p. 19 in the 2nd Edition) described scientific revolutions as a process that happens at both the individual and social levels:

When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation’s practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear. In part their disappearance is caused by their members’ conversion to the new paradigm. But there are always some men who cling to one or another of the older views, and they are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.

If I’m reading Tetlock’s paper right, though, then this description is only partly correct. In reality, scientists who are personally and professionally (or cognitively and emotionally?) invested in existing theories probably don’t convert to new ones very often. Instead, the recruitment mechanism Kuhn also mentions is probably the more relevant one. If we could reliably measure it, the churn rate associated with specific belief clusters would be a fascinating thing to watch.

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  1. Reblogged this on The Political Methodologist and commented:
    TPM doesn’t do a great deal of “reblogging,” but I wanted to bring some attention to what I think is a brief and thought-provoking post about the process of science by Jay Ulfelder. This post speaks to what I think is a debate between those who believe that science is a set of procedures–that is to say, a way of thinking and doing research that produces sound results–and those who think of science as a social process that produces knowledge from a dialogue among people who fall far short of scientific ideals. I think you can see one instance of this ongoing debate in how people think about the ongoing “credibility revolution” in quantitative research, particularly with respect to results showing that much published research is false.

  2. There is the famous quote by Max Planck (probably made famous by Kuhn’s presentation of it) that I largely subscribe to:

    A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

    Although Planck is a great counter-example to his own quote. When he first introduced quanta, he saw them exclusively as a cute mathematical trick that enlightened no ontological truths. However, after strong initial resistance and years of discussions with the likes of Einstein, he came to be convinced otherwise, and embraced his own role as the father of quantum mechanics.

    Given his prominent position in the history of quantum mechanics, and the non-individual development of quantum theory (it is really hard to identify it with a single thinker), it is a bit surprising to see how strongly he disagrees with your view of progress in science as non-individual when he said in 1936 (after quantum theory has established itself to some extent):

    New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.

    So in the end no ‘law’ is flawless, and is probably better to try to quantify the extent to which fresh blood versus review of individual positions matters, or in the larger philosophy of history setting when does agency win over structuralism and vice-versa. To close with a final quote from Planck:

    We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.

    If Planck was so skeptical of physical laws, we should be even more skeptical of historical or social ‘laws’.

    • Great comment, thanks. As you suggest, it’s almost certainly a mix of the two processes, not an either/or thing. It’s interesting to think about how that mix might have varied over time and across cultural contexts and professional fields.


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