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Rob Sheldon on why so many sciences seem to be devolving – not just social sciences

What’s hot? What’s not?/Niklas Bildhauer, Wikimedia

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon, occasioned by the social sciences’ war on empirical fact and objectivity:

Duke University professor John Staddon’s Quillette article is particularly relevant in light of the recent 20-paper hoax on the “grievance studies” division of sociology.

As John Ioannidis has observed, many areas of science are suffering from “non-reproducibility.” Nor is this limited to the areas of liberal arts and medicine. Sabine Hossenfelder’s book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, details the “non-empirical” nature of the devolution in theoretical particle physics.

Just today, I noticed a link to an article, “Is dark energy even allowed?” that details the theory wars between string theorists, dark energy theorists, and experimental particle physicists. It demonstrates that two (or three) widely accepted physics theories are at odds with each other and with experiment.

But in truth, it isn’t just these two theories, there are dozens of examples of controversy over widely accepted theories from every field of physics. These aren’t just minor spats over esoteric theories, but they question the legitimacy of entire fields of physics.

So apparently, science has lost its monolithic claim to truth. Rather, it has been carved up into competing domains of “cosmology truth”, “particle physics truth”, “behaviorist psychology truth”, “organic chemistry truth” and so on. We have all become post-modern—even the scientists.

Illustrative of this division is the debate over the proposed scientific “Hippocratic” oath that again showed up today: Look at the wording of what was proposed:

I will practice and support a scientific process that is based on logic, intellectual rigour, personal integrity, and an uncompromising respect for truth;

These words all appear to be universal, epistemological, philosophical words. Then look at the objections to this wording:

Australian Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty also has reservations, pointing out that science is not a monolithic entity to which an oath might universally be applied.

If this isn’t a confession of the fragmentation of science, then nothing is. And what does Staddon conclude is the cause of the “Devolution of Sociology”?

The problem seems to be the endless subdivision of the social sciences. Some means must be found if not to abolish at least to mitigate this protective isolation of sub-disciplines. Perhaps a modification of a peer-review system that, at present, allows hyper-specialized social-science scholars to listen only to the like-minded. Perhaps social-science grant applications should be vetted by a broader range of scientists, a majority from outside the sub-specialty. Perhaps some other solution can be found to restore the academic status of sociology. For the time being, all we can do is highlight what seems to be a pernicious degradation of science.

I don’t think these solutions will work, because it isn’t just specialization, it’s the reverence we apply to these arbitrary boundaries between specializations. It’s the argument that unless you are a climate scientist you cannot disagree with global warming; unless you are a cosmologist you cannot criticize the Big Bang; unless you are an embryologist you cannot criticize cloning experiments.

Another name for this reverence is metaphysics. It seems we have lost an overarching reason for doing science and have adopted a pragmatic, materialist approach. The late Stanley Jaki (1924–2009) said that science was the outcome of a Trinitarian metaphysics that bridged the divide between transcendence and immanence, between theory and experiment, between dogmatism and pragmatism. Without a bridge, the West was doomed to stagnate either in an Aristotelian dogmatism or a Alchemical pragmatism. According to Jaki, the current sorry state of affairs is the direct result of abandoning the Savior of Science.


See also: Rob Sheldon on the failure of selfish gene theory in peacocks, as well as bees
“Cameras affixed to peahens could monitor what they were looking at, and when introduced to new peacocks, they never looked at his tail feathers. Now this paper does the same thing to Wilson’s social insects. Survival of sweat bee colonies is 92% unrelated to genetics.”


Social sciences: The war on empirical fact and objectivity Some of us have a perhaps unhealthy fascination with just how bad the social sciences have become. We hope we can justify our amazement (and hilarity) over the easy hoaxes and all that on the grounds that real science also faces a war on math (“say goodbye to x and y”). Watching what happens to the previous victim may be instructive, and here’s one analysis worth considering

ppolish: Thanks for today's smile. I find it a little distressing that WordPress won't even let me log in without acknowledging the truth of that cisheteropatriarchial oppression known as arithmetic. Latemarch
In a Multiverse, all Social Science “hoax papers” are peer reviewed. And more surprisingly - they’re true! It’s a wonderful world. ppolish

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