The Lab and the Field, and the Temptation of Rigor

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.” -F.A. Hayek, 1945

 

As it was in 1945 it is today. There is the sense that if you can’t say something scientifically, you haven’t said it properly. And, more dangerously, there is a sense that better science requires more rigor and more formalization. The result is general confusion, and often bad science, as we attempt to talk about what cannot be said, or should not be said scientifically, in scientific (and more rigorous) terms. This sense has led to a butchery of many humanities departments, a good deal of blood-letting in the social sciences, and the emergence of weird quasi-disciplines such as “management-science” (shudder).

I too am sometimes tempted by rigor to the detriment of other considerations, and I wish to explore the twilight areas between scientific knowledge and straight-up knowledge in a series of blog posts. I am going to start with a couple of my favorite disciplines, philosophy and political science, and discuss the damage that the need to state all knowledge in scientific terms, and to go all too far down the road of rigor and formalization can cause.

With philosophy I couldn’t even start in academia. My love of the subject from high school was quickly quashed by two dreadfully comitted professors (one a very old Kantian, the other  fearfully into C.I. Lewis). It took me almost a decade to recover and rediscover the discipline. I did so outside the academic, by listening to podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus while working a dead-end job, and through the work of Robert Frodeman around interdisciplinary research.

Dreyfus is a wonderful and perceptive humanist, and have no worries, he will be well covered in further posts. Frodeman is lesser known, but also highly significant, and his term “field philosophy,” is a nice starting place for reclaiming the aforementioned, and other disciplines lost to the perils of misplaced scientific rigor. He explains the term briefly here:

Another group of philosophers, myself included, is experimenting with an approach we call “field philosophy.” Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. Instead of making law-like generalizations, field scientists draw analogies from one site to another, with the aim of telling the geological history of a particular location or the story of a particular people.

 

“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.

 

And there is a lesson that the political science discipline could take from the distinction between lab and field work. When I was at U.C. San Diego I was incredibly surprised by how the political science PhD students were completely unrecognizable from the feisty undergrads and Capitol Hill staffers I had previously had the pleasure to study and work with.

This new breed of political scientists to the one had a mathematical model from which they worked. And unless you wanted to talk econometrics (an interesting subject in its own right, I’ll give you) you really couldn’t engage them. A curiousity in the novel, the interesting, and what happened out there in the real world, the “field” just wasn’t there. While the previous political types I had met, scientific or not, would love to get into the specifics, or more likely a debate, about a  theory, or policy, or campaign, this breed couldn’t even be bothered to talk about what it was like to work among the Congressmen whose votes they were aggregating and analyzing.

Those of us looking for political science solutions around specific environmental problems, should also consider the significance field work. “Governance” puts a charmingly technical and abstract common term on a wide set of of problems. But just as the geological context of the problem may be “radically individual” in nature and thus only interpretable comparatively, so may the political or “governance” problem. And particularly when these political and geological (and biological and economic) problems are linked together, understanding of the problem(s) and solution(s) must start out in the field, even at the sacrifice of rigor and formalization.