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What data would be sufficient to falsify your thesis? This question need be asked not just in the physical science, where observations about the world are where the theoretic rubber meetings the road, but also in the social sciences. When it comes to the hard sciences, you can imagine laying out conditions that would encourage you to rethink your thesis: for example, if at normal atmospheric pressures, water does not boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, you might begin to question your theory of the relationship between the states of water and its temperature. Now, the theory doesn’t have to be entirely wrong – it is certainly possible that your thermometer is not calibrated properly, it is certainly possible that in fact you are not at normal atmospheric pressures, and it is possible that the liquid in the pot is not entirely water – and these are all possible reasons why your observations do not match your theoretical predictions.

But, just arguing that the experimental design is a bit messed up is not sufficient to address the bigger point. Assuming that you have a perfect experimental design and perfect measuring implements, what data would you be required to see before you thought there were difficulties with your theory? Furthermore, in the presence of data that contradicts your theory, what do you do? Do you use your theory to construct models and simulations and argue that the simulation results are what matters and not the observations on the ground? Do you generalize your theory enough so that just about any outcome you observe would technically be consistent with it? That is not scientific behavior at all. To avoid being unscientific, in addition ex ante specifying what data would be sufficient to falsify your theory, you are also required to state what you would do should you encounter such observations? Is your theory sufficiently defined so that it actually can be subject to testing? And if not, can you admit that what we are doing is a little beyond the mantle of true science?

In the social sciences, you can see how this is important for questions like, “Is capitalism good for humanity?” Now, the word good has lots of possible meanings – but I tend to use it as, “raises the general material living standards of people.” In this case, I would be persuaded not just by the number of calories people have access to, or the amount of clothing in their closet – but with the indicators of well being such as overall health, longevity and cognitive capability. If you wished to persuade me that my thesis was wrong, I would offer up the data that shows me life expectancy falling, calories consumed falling and cognitive ability falling when we have private property and free exchange. We can agree to examine other data too – such as how much political violence there is under each system. But I imagine that even if the data seems to comport with my theory that this would not be sufficient for anti-capitalists, nor do I think that declining life expectancies under capitalism (it doesn’t happen by the way) would be sufficient to convince me that my theory is wrong.

This is insightful. First it tells me that if economics and the social sciences are a science, they are extremely complex and perhaps defy simple theorizing. Second, it’s that we probably are not a science, and that arguments about capitalism and socialism in fact are not about consequentialist outcomes but entirely about something else. Proponents slip easily from consequentialist concerns to rules-based concerns and this elusiveness again tells me that this is not at all scientific.

Which takes us to global warming. Again, since this is a modern university I am working at, we are not actually allowed to have real conversations, so buyer beware here. What data would the “global warming consensus” crowd require before they suggest their theories are false? Or at least to suggest their theories need to be augmented? I don’t think there is any. No need to recount the 17-18 year history of “the pause” here, it’s not persuasive to anyone – but CO2 concentrations are at an all time high and the climate theory would predict that the earth would have continued to warm right through this time, but it has not – and don’t go talking about the missing heat in the ocean, it’s not clear that it’s there. My point is simply that in the face of these observations I am not seeing much amended to the climate models in terms of their expectations of what the feedback effects are, and I certainly am not seeing any climate modeler say that “the observations are causing difficulties for us” … instead what I see is that when the observations are not in accordance to what scientisits are predicting, the climate community is telling us to INCREASE our reliance on models and not pay attention to what we see on the ground.

Again, none of this is to deny the “science” of global warming, whatever that happens to be. Rather, is it too much to ask folks who use their theory as a justification for ending the world as we know it, to present, ex ante, would sort of evidence they would like to see in order to encourage them to change their views and models, one way or the other? To see how unscientific we are being, just imagine instead of having global temps flatline for nearly two decades that they increased twice as fast as models predicted, what would the reaction of the scientific community have been? Would they then have admiitted that the science is complex, that their existing models were wrong and that we should pay attention to the hotter observations instead of their models?

Inquiring minds want to know.

2 Responses to “The Mantle of Science”

  1. Harry says:

    Great piece, WC. Beats reading Krugman.

  2. James Dean says:

    This is the reason I keep coming back to this blog. While I don’t agree with every piece this is one of those posts that really make you think and really are not not talked about.

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