Hyperscience QOTD: Shapin on Pseudoscience

Eminent historian of science Steven Shapin has a review essay in the London Review of Books about a new history of pseudoscience (specifically, the Velikovsky affair). The end of the essay is especially brilliant, as Shapin thinks through what we can learn from the affair about the more general problem of demarcating pseudoscience from the real stuff (whatever that might be):

Whenever the accusation of pseudoscience is made, or wherever it is anticipated, its targets commonly respond by making elaborate displays of how scientific they really are. Pushing the weird and the implausible, they bang on about scientific method, about intellectual openness and egalitarianism, about the vital importance of seriously inspecting all counter-instances and anomalies, about the value of continual scepticism, about the necessity of replicating absolutely every claim, about the lurking subjectivity of everybody else. Call this hyperscience, a claim to scientific status that conflates the PR of science with its rather more messy, complicated and less than ideal everyday realities and that takes the PR far more seriously than do its stuck-in-the-mud orthodox opponents. Beware of hyperscience. It can be a sign that something isn’t kosher. A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.

I wonder if economics, and perhaps social science more generally, suffer from a kind of generalized case of hyperscience. Think, for example, of economists’ much more explicit invocation of philosophy of science (well, a particular version of it) to justify their practices. It reminds me a lot of Shapin’s definition of hyperscience “a claim to scientific status that conflates the PR of science with its rather more messy, complicated and less than ideal everyday realities and that takes the PR far more seriously than do its stuck-in-the-mud orthodox opponents.” But think also of the constant refrains of testing hypotheses in major sociology journals, and all the hemming and hawing about methods. Are we protesting too much? Or are things just different in the social sciences, trapped as we are in the nether regions between objectivity and advocacy, causal inference and normative theory, etc.? What would our criteria be for identifying social pseudoscience or hyperscience?

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1 Comment

  1. andrew

     /  November 2, 2012

    My position that the “pseudoscience” debate is kinduva rabbithole. we’re going to waste a lot of time if we try to spend time demcarcating criteria for what is “real” vs. “pseudo” science. I think instead we should examine the dividing line between “good/solid” vs. “crap” scientific research – that is a bit easier, in my view.

    That way, we don’t have to worry about things like normative theory and the advocacy positions of the researcher. For example, I remember that Kevin Hassett, head of the American Enterprise Institute, was quoted as saying that whatever one thinks of the Economic Policy Institute’s advocacy positions, that their research was always sound.

    I think that’s the best we can hope for in social science – the epistemological ground beneath our feet is just too shaky, so to speak.