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Mon Dec 10, 2012, 02:03 PM

Not all science is literally experimental

Last edited Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:13 PM - Edit history (9)

It has often come up here, in discussions or economics, psychology, sociology and other "soft" sciences that real science is experimental.

This is not quite right. A tremendous amount of very good science is not literally experimental. All science does, however, use the same rational framework implicit in the experimental model... thinking of the world in the same way one thinks of the elements of a laboratory experiment.

Science is about observation, logic and hypothesis/theory. Experiment is a sub-set of observation. Experiments create a very controlled reality to observe, and thus produce a highly trust-able sort of observation.

And anyone would, all other things being equal, prefer rigorous experimental data. It would be more scientific to sexually abuse children in a laboratory than to interview children who had been abused in the real world, but it would be evil, so we don't do that.

And it would be interesting to have a full scale version of our universe where gravity was 0.01% stronger than it is in our universe, but we cannot do that.

There is a hell of a lot that cannot be done experimentally, but much, and perhaps even most of science has been done with "natural experiments"... thinking of the world in experimental terms.

People who grow up drinking water with a very high level of natural fluoride have 'mottled' teeth... patches of brownish enamel. Dentists noticed that people with mottled teeth had less tooth decay. That's counter-intuitive. A seeming flaw (mottling) isn't what you'd expect from the strongest teeth.

So dentists looked at where people had mottled teeth and studied the water. The best candidate for a meaningful difference--what was most distinctly unusual about their water--was fluoride levels. So people started studying the matter backward -- measuring fluoride levels and looking at tooth decay rates. There was a high correlation of high fluoride and low tooth decay. And it turned out that it made a big difference when people moved to a town with a lot of flouride in the water... most benefit appeared to come from being there when your adult teeth were still growing inside your gums.

Correlation is not causation. We did not know that fluoride makes teeth stronger but we had a lot of evidence for the proposition. The next step was to give developing kids fluoride, and later to introduce flouride in local water supplies, and observe the tooth decay rates. That was the experiment. And from that experiment we proved that fluoride, and specifically fluoride, ingested in childhood makes teeth stronger.

Now, what if for some reason it had been impossible to do the experiment? Would we have known nothing? Of course not! We didn't start putting chemicals in people's water until we were already fairly confident of the effect. We had a lot of evidence from which a reasonable person would think it very likely that fluoride makes teeth stronger. It was of sub-experimental quality but our studies of local fluoride levels and tooth decay rates were not unscientific.

No lab experiment tells us whether global warming is happening... we don't have another Earth in a lab somewhere where the internal combustion engine was never invented. But we do have tree rings and calcium carbonate strata and such in the real world that predate automobiles and we can look at them. Most climate data is measurement (observation) of our real climate. We are very limited in our ability to run experiments on the climate. Fortunately, most of what we know about physics and chemistry, the stuff climate is made out of, has been established through first rate controlled experiment.

No experiment proves that a dinosaur species can end up as a chicken over millions of years of evolution because we haven't had millions of years to run such an experiment. We have experiments with fruit flies showing what sort of generational genetic change is possible. We have observations of fossils of dinosaurs with breastbones we can compare to those of modern chickens. We have theories that try to account for things in the world that can be tested against both genetic experiment and fossil observation.

It's a big, complex, multi-disciplinary rational approach to the world and it is all science.

It is fashionable to dismiss economics as quackery because it is unable to predict things with precision in the real world. But it predicts all sorts of things very reliably. If I go try to sell my car for a dollar I will succeed. If I try to sell it for a milion dollars I will fail. How did I know that???

Granted, I didn't have to get an economics degree to know that, but I didn't need a physics degree to know to not jump off a tall building.

In both cases there is some reality... gravity, and a general tendency for people to want to get more for less. And reality can be studied.

Economics is unique in that all predictions are dismissed as obvious until we reach the point where economics cannot predict well. This is because People Like Money.

The stuff people desperately want economics to tell them is whatever it is economics cannot tell them because value comes from knowing what other people don't know. (And it is hard to get people to put money down on both sides of a bet if the outcome is known to everyone.)

Physics can predict to a hundred decimal places how long it will take a bowling ball to drop ten feet. Why can't economics predict what the stock market will do tomorrow?

Well, consider the alternative. RESOLVED: An economic theory succeeds in predicting what the stock market will do.

What happens? Everyone knows what the stock market will do and acts accordingly. You know the stock market will br flat today and will go up 100 points tomorrow so you buy today. And so does everyone else, and now the stock market is 100 points higher than it would have been if everyone hadn't known it would go up 100 tomorrow and, obviously, the theory that predicted a 100 point gain tomorrow was NOT predicting a 100 point gain today so that theory turned out to be wrong. The theory undid itself by being so good that people accepted it as reliable.

The acceleration of a falling bowling ball does not depend on observers betting on how fast it will fall.

So, given that it is impossible for a theory of the stock market to be both accurate and well-known, does that mean that economics is junk?

Hardly. A sharp modern stock trader could take the market of the 1920s apart. I could kick Henry Ford's ass running a factory. Almost any of us could depose the great banks of Venice or Florence.

Modern economic thinking is vastly more sophisticated and effective than older economic thinking, which suggests that there is real valid stuff going on.

But every participant in an economic system is seeking to game the system. The more we learn the better we can game.

Any modern chess master would demolish Paul Morphy (the first great American chess champion). We know a lot more about chess strategy today. But that does not mean that we always win chess games today.

It is still a game with a winner and a loser. (Excluding draws.) And all that we have learned about chess has not changed the fact that half the players lose.

And our learning about chess has created a world where nobody can casually kick-ass on the whole world like Paul Morphy did.

No chess player today is as superior as Paul Morphy was, in the context of his times.

Does that mean that we are worse at chess... that what we have learned about chess is invalid? No, it means that competition exists. Bobby Fisher was fond of King Pawn openings even though it was believed that Queen Pawn openings were superior. But 1960s-1970s tournament players had spent most of their time thinking about Queen Pawn openings and didn't know KP openings as well, so the supposedly 'inferior' openings were often more confusing to opponents.

In a dynamic system the "right answer" will tend to shift.

The rules of chess, and all the strategic implications of those rules are static. There is probably an optimal first move "out there"... and all other things being equal best first move. The competitive system of people studying chess and playing tournaments, however, is dynamic.

I don't think economics can ever perfectly predict... that it is actually impossible. I am, however, certain that the CBO can 'score' the dynamic effects of hypothetical legislation much better than a random number generator can.

And I am sure that things we learn about economics are, like what we learn about chess, real advances in understanding--but advances in understanding that actually make the game harder, not easier, because a lot of people know a lot more about chess than we used to.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Original post)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 02:40 PM

1. My goodness!! What a BEAUTIFUL post! Bookmarking & Thank You, cthulu2016!

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Response to cthulu2016 (Original post)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 02:45 PM

2. Science requires the application of the SCIENTIFIC METHOD.

Anything less falls under the field of "educated guess".

The scientific method (or simply scientific method) is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.[1] To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.[2] The Oxford English Dictionary says that the scientific method is: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses."[3]


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Response to Romulox (Reply #2)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 03:37 PM

3. Which does not always require literal experiment

"To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning"

Very true.


"...consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses."

Does not mean that all science is based on literal laboratory experiments.

Almost everyone I know of who has been shot through the head was seriously injured thereby. Since I am not going to start shooting people in the head, I treat the real world as an experiment wherein some people were shot in the head and some people were not shot in the head. (This is a true description of the world.) And in this "experiment" I then saw whether the people who had been shot in the head showed evidence of serious injury... and much moreso than my natural 'control' group of people who were not shot.

I conclude from this that I do not want to be shot in the head.

There is nothing unscientific about that "experiment" even though I did not shoot anyone.

I could refine the quality of my test of the "getting shot in the head is injurious" hypothesis by conducting a formal experiment, actually shooting 50 people and not shooting 50 people, and taking notes.

But that formal experiment is merely a refinement of, and improvement on, the natural experiment of observing people with and without certain head-wounds.

It is not a difference in kind. It is differing levels of formal quality of an experimental mode of thinking.

The "natural experiment" of the fact that some people are shot and other are not shot provides real experimental data in the form of people with and without head wounds.

All science does depend on an experimental way of thinking. "To see what effect bullets have on heads I want a group of shot persons and a group of un-shot persons to compare."

Are my results reproducible? Again, you don't need to shoot people to reproduce my results. You can study a different population of people who have, or have not been shot. You can wait for victims to show up at a local emergency room and observe them.

It valid science to observe within the framework of an experimental model. It would be more precise to shoot everyone in a lab with the same gun at the same distance, etc.., but the failure to do that does not make a longitudinal study of gunshot victims unscientific.

That's all that is being said.

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Response to Romulox (Reply #2)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 03:56 PM

4. Yes, and history does show us that there are forms of the "educated guess" that could be

the result of nascent scientific methodology, those leaps in insight that are potentiated in the relevant phenomenological systems by all that preceded them, but have not yet fully manifested themselves, foundations that have not been applied in a specific manner yet.

This is easier to observe in the arts, by means of the differences between the mechanics that anyone can execute, with more or less skill and precision, and specific creative events in which those same mechanics are taken a step BEYOND themselves by all that was potentiated in all of the systems, and we might think here especially of those concrete physiological systems that add up to the artist him/her-self, before the creative event itself. Those events are there, they may just not have been evoked yet.

There's a difference between people who repeat the multiplication tables mechanically from memory alone and someone who is fluent in algebra. What precisely and concretely is that difference? In the fable about Newton and the apple, other persons sat under apple trees and we aren't telling their story. Why not? What exactly was the difference?

Maybe you can see where I'm headed with this. Perhaps we are seeing something that intends to value rationalism, but it is too narrow in its perceptions of the requirement you refer to as "SCIENTIFIC METHOD", valuing the mechanics without honoring the cognitive roots, principle phenomenologies, that result in the scientific method in the first place, amongst OTHER THINGS.

Not, of course, that all that those same phenomenologies produce has the same validity, so we should certainly be diligent in our assessment and evaluation of them in that regard, but just that not all that is produced is necessarily invalid just because it is not fully manifest in specific concrete scientific methodologies yet.

Yes, this is a defense of what is labeled "spirituality" as a much OLDER form of cognition that pre-dated rational positivism, something we see some rudimentary forms of in animals still, but which is being discounted by some today, because of politics. And the reason that I am bothering with this sketch of pre-epistemological forms is because I suspect that too exclusive emphasis upon applied science will most definitely suffer (if we take OP's point to heart) less and less and less validity if we don't give as much value also to Basic Research for the possibilities it allows us to pursue in that which goes just beyond re-iterative mechanics into relatively new, and perhaps needed, forms of understanding.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Original post)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 04:00 PM

5. Assholes and idiots are harder to work with than rats

is what it boils down to.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Original post)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 04:06 PM

6. Please add that experimentation and/or observation must be reproduceable.

One experiment, one observation of a phenomenon is not good enough. And although I understand you're trying to equate economics with chemistry or physics, I do not agree.

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Response to Avalux (Reply #6)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 04:19 PM

7. Equate is a funny word

I would never equate economics and physics. That would be silly.

I could, however, draw a Venn diagram that included physics and economics while excluding astrology.

I could also draw a Venn diagram that included physics and chemistry, but excluded economics.

It depends what one is saying, in specific.

As for reproducibility of results, nobody reading this OP is unaware of reproducibility.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Reply #7)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 04:24 PM

8. I would like to see a Venn diagram of of the first example you gave.

What are the commonalities of physics and economics?

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Response to Avalux (Reply #8)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:01 PM

10. In theory or practice?

If one wants to say that all economists are frauds, that is something to say.

But granting economics the dignity of its own ostensible rules, it does deal with falsifiable hypothesises about some independent reality in a way physics does and astrology does not.

"If we triple the supply of apples at the farmers market today while keeping the number of shoppers constant it is likely that the price of apples will fall."

"If we ignite hydrogen and oxygen some water will be produced thereby."

"Everyone born in October will find true love today."

Of the three, the third is not going to happen. That will not, however, prevent similar things being said tomorrow because astrologers do not test their predictions against reality. It is not part of their... discipline, gig, racket, whatever one calls it.

The second will happen every time, and if it did not happen physicists would stop claiming it did because the claim is not framed as a likelihood or tendency. (If, however, it was framed as a probability it wouldn't be less scientific--I have no problem with the probability of an electron tunneling through an insulator. I think no less of physics for giving a range of odds when the truth is a range of odds.)

The first will be true more reliably than most things involving human psychology, and merchants aware of the phenomenon will benefit thereby, making better decisions about inventory and pricing. We know this because we have a heck of a lot of history of food stuffs and prices and supplies and human caloric intake and such.

And if the first tended not to happen than an ethical practitioner of economics would stop saying that it is the norm.

There would remain a lot of crackpots and self-interested individuals and paid-liars who would keep claiming it, even if natural experiment in real world markets did not support it, but that is not best practice.

A lot of economists say things that are not supported by evidence, that they wish to be true, or gain by pretending are true, but that is an observation about the thing as practiced. It does not mean that no scientiffic statement can be made about pricing.... that a rigorous study of fruit pricing is impossible, or that basic laws of arithmetic and human psychology cannot have reliable implications.

It just means that many, and perhaps most economists are piss poor scientists.

But if you apply scientific thinking to the economic realm you will find some truths. Even if something as simple as, "People will tend to trade one pound of gold for two pounds of gold" that is a testable hypothesis, and a falsifiable hypothesis (after we define 'tend to') and it is also true. People will tend to trade less for more.

The astrologer has no underlying truth... there are, in fact, no noteworthy commonalities of the futures of people with the same sign. The astrologer "studies" something that does not exist--the effect of the procession of the zodiac on our fate.

Would one say that human economic behavior doesn't exist?

One cannot say that human economic behavior has no trends, tendencies, commonalities. It isn't random. And when there is something real in the world to study then it can be studied scientifically.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Reply #10)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:30 PM

12. Hmm....

"If we triple the supply of apples at the farmers market today while keeping the number of shoppers constant it is likely that the price of apples will fall."

"If we ignite hydrogen and oxygen some water will be produced thereby."


The word "likely" in your economics example is the red flag. Whether or not the price of apples falls based upon an increase on supply is solely dependent on whether or not the same number of shoppers will want to buy those apples. An assumption can be made, but choice is a variable that can set the whole thing screwy.

No matter how many times we ignite hydrogen and oxygen, a gazillion times, let's say - a byproduct will ALWAYS be water.

So as I said in my first reply to you, these are not comparable.

Yes, economics can be measured and predicted, but there are no absolutes because too many variables come into play.

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Response to cthulu2016 (Reply #7)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 04:26 PM

9. I would say that economics is closer to astronomy as a science than it is physics

Astronomers seldom perform experiments in the manner of controlling anything about the phenomena they study.

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Response to Fumesucker (Reply #9)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:14 PM

11. Economics is not really close to astronomy, either


Economics includes the effects of law, regulation and custom, which do not reflect any natural phenomena. For example, the IRS code and the Uniform Commercial Code affect economic outcomes.

Second, economic reflects the aggregate behaviour of communicating humans, which is inherently unpredictable over any reasonable time scale.

Meteorology might be a closer analogy, since it deals with an inherently chaotic phenomena, but it still doesn't have the two factors described above.

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