Monday, January 7, 2008

The Way Science Works

Modern science likes to think of itself as far above the superstition, intuition, and lucky hunches of the hoi polloi.

The reality is, scientists are fully paid-up members of the human race. They do, in fact, think like the rest of us. As Michael Shermer points out in Scientific American, many scientific discoveries begin with something like the thought, "Gee, that's weird." The resulting path of trial and error discovery, intuition, hunches and (yes) even superstition, in hindsight, gives the scientific process far more empirical certainty than it really had.

Shermer's article reminded me of F. A. Hayek's 1952 book, The Counter Revolution of Science, wherein he made the case that intellectuals were guilty of a terrible mistake when they tried to use what they thought was the methodology of science to explain complex social phenomenon like markets.

This "abuse of reason" was dangerous because, among other things, there was a considerable difference between the methods scientists said they used and the ones they actually used. In effect, Hayek argued, scientific method was developed ex post, not ex ante.

As Hayek wrote," The methods which scientists or men fascinated by the natural sciences have so often tried to force upon the social sciences were not always necessarily those which the scientists in fact followed in their own field, but rather those which they believed that they employed. This is not necessarily the same thing. The scientist reflecting and theorizing about this procedure is not always a reliable guide."

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