Week 3: What is Science?

Having addressed negotiating grad school and reality, perception and human knowledge, week 3 of my new course, Scientific Inquiry–Theory & Inference,[1] tackles the demarcation problem: what is (non)science?  We might begin with motivating question: What can explain the explosion in practical knowledge produced by the scientific revolution?  Instead, we take it as given that students accept that there is something called “science” that would be useful to distinguish as a way of producing human knowledge from non-science modes of knowledge production.  The Babbie and Cohen & Nagel readings from the previous week set the stage for such a demarcation.


To this point the course has made a case for distinguishing pre-modern, modern and post-modern ontological positions, the third of which implies a constructivist view of human knowledge.  It seems to me that many social scientists consider the post-modern / constructivist positions as anti-thetical to science.  That position has never made sense to me.  But students are likely to have an (implicit) understanding of science as a method practiced by individuals that is predicated on a modern ontological position, or at least the rejection of constructivist understandings of human knowledge.  The course, thus, takes it as given that these issues must be confronted head on.

As such, in seminar I ask the students whether the reading in weeks two and three have, to some extent, kicked down the foundation upon which there understanding of science rested.  Many (most?) said that it had.  And discussion in seminar revealed the discomfort that produced.

I reminded them that the goal of the course is to give them the intellectual tools they  need to begin constructing, while in graduate school, their own intellectual values that will support their decision to make public their own knowledge claims (via publications). I then explained that the course makes the argument that the key to demarcating science as a process for knowledge production is to move from focusing on individual practice of a “scientific method” (as covered in elementary education and depicted in fiction) to a focus on the norms and institutions that govern community practice.  Over the course of the semester the course “rebuilds” science from post-modern and constructivist foundations that embrace what social scientists have taught us about biases in human perception,  and the problems induced by our species inherent individual engagement in status (re)construction.

The logically coherent framework the course proposes provides the first, to our knowledge, social science account of science as a knowledge community defined by norms and institutions that govern practices which solve (as yet poorly articulated, though well intuited in isolation) collective action problems induced by (a) the frailties of individual humans to produce useful/practical knowledge and (b) the ubiquity (constancy) of status competition among primates.[2]  As the semester proceeds we will use this framework to integrate “solutions” to these problems that are generally viewed in isolation and/or as false choices.[3]  In doing so we will not only expose false choices (fallacies of the excluded middle), but also highlight the number of actual trade-offs researchers face as they plan and execute projects, and make a case for why the focus on individual projects (articles, findings, etc.) is misplaced.  We will also identify a variety of attendant problems, and put ourselves in a position to make proposals about how to create / revise our norms and institutions coherently.

But this week we read standard accounts of the demarcation of science from non-science, though rely on an undergraduate text (first written in 1976) that embraces the post-modern, constructivist account.


Reading Assignments

The undergraduate text is Chalmers’s What is this Thing Called Science?, and I have them read chaps 3-7 and 15.  They read chapters one and two last week.  Chalmers cover the falsificationist demarcation effort of Karl Popper, and the subsequent revisions thereto, that still serve as the primary philosophical foundation for most of the coursework of this stripe in political science.[4]

This strikes us as important reading because it is so well known among the faculty who will be assessing these students’ as they pursue tenure track positions, and when they apply for promotion and tenure.  One could imagine skipping it–why read historians’ or philosophers’ efforts to demarcate science from non-science, especially when they were written decades prior to social scientists production of theories of collective action problems, norms and institutions, and contemporary understandings of human perception and knowledge claims?  Were a text like Chalmers unavailable, one could make a case.  But Chalmers’ treatment is wholly consistent with the major argument of the course, and is very accessible.

In addition, we assign the “Inductive Reasoning,” “Analogical Reasoning,” and “Problems
with Induction,” discussions in HJ Gensler’s Introduction to Logic.  It is an undergraduate text.  I have a brief unpublished “Primer on Inference and Logic for Political Researchers,” and in conjunction with Gensler, the students get a very briefly sketched foundation upon which to construct the case for the value of logic for theory construction and evaluation.   These two readings suffer from the conventional “one inch deep, ten miles wide” problem, and will be of much greater use to students who have had a course in symbolic logic than those who have not.  Yet when we get into the “Building Blocks” of theory construction (see this post for a course overview) in two weeks, these primer sketches will be helpful.

Pages 9-15 of Clarke & Primo’s A Model Discipline contain these sections: “Science is not what we Think it is,” “Current Practice is not Philosophy Free,” “Models are Objects,” and “Models are not Tested with Data.”  Those sections dove tail nicely with Chalmers, further undermining the “modern-falsificationist” foundation for science that are so common in the discipline.  We assign much of the remainder of Clarke & Primo in the reading for next week, so pulling out these sections and including them here serve as a nice setup for the coming week.

Finally, in chapter 6 of Doing Political Science Zuckerman has a very accessible[5] account of why we should think of science as community practice: the norms and institutions produce individual incentives that maximize the prospects that a scientific knowledge community will, on average (especially as one increases the temporal unit of aggregation over which to make comparisons), generate practical knowledge that will improve our ability to act in the world with increasing effectiveness.  That account plays a bit fast and loose with Zuckerman’s chapter.  He does not use the terminology I am using, but it is entirely consistent with my account, and hence makes for useful reading.


[1] Co-developed with Nate Monroe.

[2] While I am not a fan of Dacher Keltner‘s use of the term “power” (what political scientist could be?) his work on status competition is accessible and current.  Check out this Podcast overview.

[3] In the weeks to come I will describe why I believe status competition incentives provide a useful explanation for why these “debates” exist and tend to be so draconian (hint: think “chest beating” as an alpha male dominance behavior).

[4] I chose not to include the chapters on Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigms, normal science, crises, and revolutions,” Lakatos’s revisions to Popper, nor Mayo’s new experimentalism. Whether this is a good, or poor decision, I am uncertain.  I try to keep the reading to an amount that they will consume closely, but confess to being very uncertain what is the modal inflection point for an amount of reading.

[5] It is an undergraduate textbook.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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3 Responses to Week 3: What is Science?

  1. Pingback: Week 4: Why Theorize? | Will Opines

  2. Pingback: Want Ye Some Building Blocks for Theorizing? | Will Opines

  3. Pingback: What is knowing, what is science, what is theory? | Will Opines

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