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.



Whacky Versus Dull (Fear Dull)

Here’s some crazy art theory that I encountered on a tour of the Lenbachhaus in Munich. It and similar ideas were central to inspiring Kandinsky and his compatriots.

“Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

Franz Marc

German Expressionist Painter, 1880-1916


And look what it got us, a blue horse! Why would you think to paint a horse blue? It isn’t exactly intuitive, so as outmoded as the theory is, it did bring us something new, and something we can react to.

Here’s something boring, but far more dangerous, we were exposed to a derivative of this by the EU Commission. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to make sense of it. Your eyes should glaze over.

“The trilemma more directly relevant to this conference theme is a financial stability trilemma put forward by Dirk Schoenmaker (2008), explaining the incompatibility within the euro zone of a stable financial system, an integrated financial system, and national financial stability policies. By far the most high profile current trilemma, as per some analysts, is the euro-zone trilemma: the seeming irreconcilability between its three wishes: a single currency, minimal fiscal contribution to bail outs, and the ECB’s commitment to low inflation.”
-Inaugural speech by Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao, Governor, Reserve Bank of India.

Confused? I hope so. If the above quote makes much sense at all you probably inhabit a rarefied and abstract world not often visited by human beings. Nevertheless this incredibly convoluted theory, meant to update previous macroeconomic theory for the financial crisis and the situation in the Euro Zone, is being used to justify a series of broad reforms which sound a lot like the reforms that economists always argue for.

We don’t need to trust or believe Marc’s theory, we have a blue horse to react to, and if we’re intrigued we can dig into the theory later. But the EU Commission’s economists, whose canvas consists of 28 member states, 24 languages, 507 million people, and $16 trillion in GDP, just ask us to trust them. Of course we cannot expect them to prove that their plan will work, but a bit of humility would be warranted, as most any theory driving human action is eventually made to look more ridiculous than a blue horse.

The Gift of Christmas and Games of Betrayal


Et tu, Holleeday?

The Christian holiday of Christmas is built around a gift of infinite mercy, the only son of the Almighty is made flesh, so that he can suffer and die and redeem a sinful world. The death of the Christchild is not so far removed from the celebration of his birth as the carol ‘What Child is This’ proclaims in its beautiful and melancholy second verse “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you.”

And so we have in the back of our mind in the season of peace and good will to all, the culmination of the story, and the story cannot culminate without a heartless and pointless betrayal, that of Judas Iscariot.

In Dante’s Inferno the very worst punishment is reserved for Judas, to be consumed head first eternally in one of Lucifer’s three mouths. But interestingly enough the next worse punishment, being consumed eternally feet first in the other two mouths, Dante reserves for two pagans, Cassius and Brutus for their betrayal of Caeser.

I would thus venture to say (and Milton’s Satan in the Protestant tradition and Benedict Arnold in American history come forward as ready further examples) that betrayal is one of, if not the least forgiveable or acceptable acts that we encounter in human affairs. Betrayal stands on the other side of and against trust, good will, and openness, and a real betrayal, one that we cannot reduce to pure mean calculation, always is to a certain extent incomprehensible.

It may therefore be similarly incomprehensible that some of you may find under you holiday bush, or use to while away some long hours on your glow device, games that add betrayal for a spice of fun or for which betrayal is the main event. We like to experiment with what is dangerous in a safe cardboard setting, though some of you may have already learned, not all relatives know how to separate between play and real life.

Some of these games, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, let us enter a world where the majority of players must defend against and ferret out the player or players with a secret and treacherous identity. The lines here are quite clearly drawn, and no one (reasonably) harbors any animosity for the traitors(s) because even if they win, they were just playing the game well.

The classic classic Diplomacy and the modern classic Settlers of Catan reveal an entirely different dynamic. It is possible to become extremely irrationally outraged by the behaviors of other players in these ‘games.’ (In fact I have never lost at either at these games except through the conniving and backstabbing nature and numbing stupidity of some who will not be named. Kiddiinngg.. geez.)

I venture the guess, that this is because we have no recourse to punish such betrayal except through our limited means within the game. And often our means are so limited that a skillful traitor may very well win. Infuriating!

To draw a further perspective we can look at a soon to be modern classic Eclipse, an economic development and conquest game. Here the penalty for treachery is defined, minus two victory points. I can’t say I felt any anger when the heavily armed cruiser and dreadnought of one of my soon to be former allies ended up unannounced in my sector. Yes, I will blow them to smithereens before they return fire, but I don’t fault the guy. He made his calculation, -2 VP for a shot at him, I may have done the same in his situation (though I certainly would not have missed the star base build counterattack, sloppy, sloppy).

When treachery is just an open and mean calculation, our reaction to it is not so fundamental or primal. But when we have no recourse in our means, and when we cannot understand fully the nature of the act, our reaction could not be more visceral.

At this point in the sermon there should be a point to sum this all up, and tell us how we may think about the Christmas season, and the importance of keeping faith and trust in each other, so as to avoid fear, suspicion, hate, and revenge. And a scientific treatment may propose to test the hypothesis above by further looking at depictions of betrayers in different traditions. But this is neither of those, but rather a blog post.

Note: Culture and the Social Scientist

I’ve heard the word culture come up a couple times in explaining the differences between Germany and U.S. in water management. It’s a word that puts fear in any social scientist, because if the differences are just cultural differences, well we can’t really say anything interesting about the issue can we? Germans and Americans are different, end of story.

I don’t believe that culture is the end of the story. Clearly I don’t, otherwise I would be wasting my time here and the German government would be wasting its money by way of the Humboldt Foundation.  A water supply or treatment system is a physical and technical system. How it is managed may reflect cultural values, but these aren’t the full story.

Fortunately for me, Elinor Ostrom has included a small mention of culture on page 27 of Understanding Institutional Diversity, as an attribute of a community that reflects its values and thus the “mental models” of its participants. She also mentions that the history community members have with governing institutions will reflect in their likelihood of participating in, adhering to, or ignoring rulemaking procedures.

It isn’t a strong or comprehensive discussion (those of you familiar with the representationalism/anti-representationalism fights in philosophy may see a jarring juxtaposition of culture and mental models without further explanation), but it means this boy don’t need to be overly worried about being not too cultured anytime soon.

(Herbert) Simon Says: “If…for want of a nail the kingdom was lost…rational behavior would be virtually impossible.”

Those of you who with whom I have debated philosophy or discussed social science know that I am a big fan of the late Herbert Simon. He was one of the great minds of the last century and his work laid the groundwork for organizational and decision theory, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence. Concepts he developed such as “satisficing” and “bounded rationality” are still in good circulation and are once again gaining steam with the rise of behavioral economics.

The point is, he’s big, and will continue to be big as the field of economics tries to find new direction after the global financial crisis. He was mainstream in the sense that he received the “Nobel” for economics and was in close contact with the likes of Kenneth Arrow and Milton Friedman, but he was always more of a political or social scientist, and so his work is more accessible and useful to interdisciplinary practitioners. His philosophy is a very sparse and pragmatic rationalism, one that leaves abundant space and encourages empirical inquiry, but at the same time is coherent and clear enough to save the investigator from losing sight of why the investigation was begun in the first place.


So, I’m experimenting with a little series with Simon quotes and expanding a bit on why I find them insightful and useful for my work. The quote in the subject line comes from Simon’s Administrative Behavior. (The full quote is at the bottom for those of you desiring more context.)

This quote speaks to the conditions under which rationality is in fact possible, and that we routinely encounter areas where we can behave in a rational manner, has more to do with how the world around us is organized, than with our prodigious calculating powers. The quote from Simon paints a particularly clear picture of the lunacy of any complex enterprise for which success was only possible through such exacting requirements for planning and execution. A king whose plans were so delicate, no matter what his abilities, would not be a king for long.

And what does this tell us? It gives a perspective on adapting to all the challenges of an increasingly complicated world, especially those that come from disrupting natural systems that our societies were long accustomed to behaving in a regular manner. Through better organization, better communication, and better science we can make better decisions, but there are certain levels of complexity under which we collectively and individually will not be able to behave rationally.


The quote also speaks to the advantages of designing our institutions for simplicity. While I don’t think this is at all controversial, one must hold in mind that simplicity may demand what some see as arbitrary. A little tweak, a little exception can always align a policy better with the realities on the ground. The result can often be something such as the U.S. Tax Code, which by virtue of its very complexity undermines many objectives that it may at the same time seek to promote. My axiom is to accept the small stupid where possible, in order to avoid the big one.

In his later work, Simon describes two different design programs, and warns that we must differentiate them. The first is the Apollo Program, truly an amazing feat and one that people cite to this day “If we could put a man on the moon, couldn’t we…?” If only all our problems could be solved with time, money, and engineers. But they can’t. The goal of the Apollo Program was very clear and all the necessary money was made available. And so Simon contrasts it with the problem of organizing and maintaining a free society. And here he points to the U.S. Constitution, a work that is still in progress with goals that are much more vaguely defined and which we still fight over.

Indeed, a spacecraft can be lost for want of a rivet or a failure to convert from metric. But a society should not be. And yet some of the shriller and most heard voices are yammering about issues that are no larger than nails..

And here is the quote from Administrative Behavior (Third Edition):

“It has already been remarked that the subject, in order to perform with perfect rationality … would have to have a complete description of the consequences following from each alternative strategy and would have to compare these consequences. He would have to know in every single respect how the world would be changed by his behaving in one way instead of another, and he would have to follow the consequences of behavior through unlimited stretches of time, unlimited reaches of space, and unlimited sets of values. Under such conditions even an approach to rationality in real behavior would be inconceivable.

Fortunately, the problem of choice is usually greatly simplified by the tendency of the empirical laws that describe the regularities of nature to arrange themselves in relatively isolated subsets. Two behavior alternatives, when compared, are often found to have consequences that differ in only a few respects and for the rest are identical. That is, the differential consequences of one behavior as against an alternative behavior may occur only within a brief span of time and within a limited area of description. If it were too often true that for want of a nail the kingdom was lost, the consequence chains encountered in practical life would be of such complexity that rational behavior would be virtually impossible. (Simon, 1976, accessed through RJ Gray, 1999)

Alexander von Humboldt: A Man With A Plan

Apparently by accepting this fellowship I have become a Humboldtian. I must admit I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this new aspect of my identity. But as Humboldtians are apparently scholars I turned to a book. Douglas Botting’s enjoyable Humboldt and the Cosmos, in fact.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Now you Washingtonians are going to have to hold onto your seats for a minute because I learned there are more places named after this guy than Ronald Reagan. I know! And all over the Americas too, from the Humboldt Bay in California to the Humboldt Current off South America. He made important discoveries all across the sciences too, and laid the ground for new ones, little ones such as geology and ecology.

Not so bad, one might say. But what about the man and his values? Why has the German government chosen to re-endow a foundation decimated twice, by the hyperinflation of the 1920s and then by the Second World War?

Humboldt was the last universal man, meaning he knew everything there was to know, from the theory and methods of all the sciences to the latest gossip in the salons of Paris. And he acquired this knowledge through compulsive study. Many around him in his early years complained that he discussed his studies as much to impress others of his intellect as anything else. Humboldt was an excellent and committed natural scientist, however, and wanted desperately to escape small minded Prussian Berlin where the likes of Hegel discussed their a priori fantasies about how the world worked. (This was moon is made of green cheese really silly kinda stuff.)

Despite his ample finances and chance to escape his (very successful) career in the Prussian mining services after the death of his mother, Humboldt had some difficulties beginning his adventures. His trip to study the volcanoes of Italy was thwarted by a Napoleonic invasion. His new plan to explore the upper Nile with an eccentric Englishman and two female companions was also scratched by a Napoleon’s military adventures. Finally he got a break, a contact with some pull in the Spanish court got him the King’s approval to visit the colonies in America. So he ran the British blockade on a Spanish ship and was off to Venezuela.

There Humboldt didn’t invent fanciful tales, but documented everything with the latest methods and equipment. The guy was relentless. And this was quite new. In Europe armchair geographers theorized that the Rio Orinoco could not be hydrologically connected to the Amazon. Humboldt discovered it was, by taking a canoe up river and finding the canal that connected the two. Then in 1802, he climbed the volcano Chimborazo, which was believed to be the highest mountain in the world, and captured the imagination of Europe.

A sketch of Chimborazo with plant locations by AvH.

A sketch of Chimborazo with plant locations by AvH.

And the rest was history: met with Thomas Jefferson, fame and personal rivalry with Napoleon in Paris, less successful expedition to Russia where he was just to famous to get anything done besides find diamonds in the Urals. Then he helped out and inspired numerous aspiring scientist, including Darwin.

But what does this tell one about being a Humboldtian? Humboldt was a man wedded to science, to such an extent that all romantic entanglements ended at a very early age. I must admit I’m reluctant to say, “I’m sorry honey, I’m leaving you for science.”

He had no time for religion or music either, but rather saw a unity in physical nature through the sciences, as approached through observation and quantification. As a social scientist who often feels that many colleagues rely too much on math, this is also a challenge. But my objection here is that this quantification is often to provide a veneer of natural science to what is more often properly understood in social context. (I’m looking at you economics.) And perhaps here there is a fitting place to honor his legacy. The highest mountains and most dangerous geographies have all been traversed and mapped, but we are now in the position to understand human beings as we never have before. In doing so, we must keep a rigorous separation between what we can observe through our methods and instruments, and where we are engaging in a priori speculation.