Blinding You With Science

As many of this blog’s readers know, my background is in the Humanities, which has been a good and bad thing for me as a researcher in the predominantly scientific discipline of HCI. For several years, one of my projects has been to clarify and distinguish from each other scientific and humanistic modes of knowledge production (e.g., their respective epistemologies, contribution types, expressive forms (e.g., reports versus essays, etc.)). Indeed, this blog has been my whiteboard for sketching out my ideas in that domain.

Maybe two or three years ago, I realized that I didn’t know enough about science to do what I really wanted to do, and so I started reading from the vast literature in the history and philosophy of science. I’ve really enjoyed it; among other things, it has helped this humanist come to appreciate and love science. And in the past 18 months or so, these readings have started to bubble out into my teaching and publications–and I think their introduction to my work has not only strengthened it from my own perspective, but I think readers and students have also responded to aspects of my work and teaching that takes the time out to explain some of these terms.

The positive reaction to my use of core scientific philosophy took me a bit by surprise, because my own “impostor syndrome” had me convinced that everyone but me already knew this stuff. But increasingly, I’m realizing that many people know how to do science with rigor, but they can’t always clearly articulate their own, say, epistemology–at least on short notice. Sometimes, they inadvertently treat their own ways of knowing as a normative standard, i.e., that all knowledge production should have the same indicators of “rigor” that theirs does. But when I start to talk through these issues using basic scientific technical vocabulary in a reasonably precise way, it excites them–and that really facilitates good dialogue, which is what we’re all about.

Here are some very simple examples of what I am talking about:

  • What is the difference between a “scientific explanation” and a “description”?
  • We all know that astrology is not a science, but can we say exactly why that is so?
  • Is positivism a good or a bad thing? How has “post-positivism” replaced “logical positivism,” and how can we tell which form of positivism a given paper today is using?
  • Should the social sciences be able to achieve the same standards of clarity and progress that the natural science have, and why or why not?
  • What are the relationships among laws, theories, and models?
  • What is the difference between methods and methodologies?
  • What are the difference among common theories of truth: correspondence, pragmatist, coherence, etc.?
  • Was Kuhn right about scientific paradigms, normal science, etc.?
  • What does a rigorous scientific process look like? How about a rigorous scientific product?

This is basic stuff. But it’s also really important stuff, because more often than not, scientific paper submissions and grant proposals are evaluated against a tacit understanding of how well they measure up against scientific ideals. Yet, when we ourselves are fuzzy on these ideals–a problem that I see especially in the social sciences, which have a complex relationship to natural science, quantitative statistics, etc., on the one hand, and the humanities, critical theory, and design on the other–it becomes difficult to measure submissions against scientific ideals with the rigor and intersubjective agreement they deserve.

Recently, a scientist friend of mine heard that I was an “expert” in these things. (Such is demonstrably not the case, since I was merely seeking to address a gaping deficiency in my own knowledge; I will own up now to being an enthusiastic amateur in matters pertaining to the philosophy of science but no more. Maybe when I grow up.) And he asked me for some references, and it occurred to me that other people might benefit from some of this as well.

The history and philosophy of science, like any other academic field, is huge and daunting. At times, it has its own highly technical vocabulary and ways of doing, which are hard for outsiders to get into. Of course, Wikipedia covers many of these topics, but for obvious reasons Wikipedia defines a lot of these terms without explaining them. To me, encountering a definition without really explaining it either requires considerable investment on my part to get anything from it, or it just dribbles right back out of my head (<– most common outcome). Moreover, I’ve found that sometimes a concept in Wikipedia will be expressed from the perspective of a particular science, e.g., physics, that makes it a little bit hard to generalize from.

More usefully, there are a number of introductory anthologies that either (a) survey the key ideas, in chapters written recently for that introductory volume (i.e., they are accessible, but not famous or foundational chapters), or (b) collect seminal writings, mostly from the twentieth century (i.e., they are famous and foundational, but they are not reliably accessible to non-specialist readers). Both types of introductory volume have their benefits. All of them will address the sorts of issues laid out in the bullet list above.

Here is an example of the first type:

Here are two examples of the second type:

All of the above cover both natural and social sciences, often with an emphasis on natural, but there is a book specifically on the social sciences that I really like (which is not to say that I agree with its argument):

Clearly, this post is not an earth-shattering contribution to interaction design, but if you are an empirical scientist or an aspiring one, or if, like me, you work with empirical scientists, it’s good to have a fairly explicit and articulatable facility with these kinds issues. If nothing else, a working knowledge of core issues in the philosophy of science demystifies “scientific rigor,” which may help practitioners design better user studies, and it may help researchers speak more carefully about their taken-for-granted ideals.


  1. Jofish


    Can I suggest Bruno Latour’s book Science in Action? I found it particularly engaging because there was a story about how science [really] works that I really recognized and could engage with. I think you might find it informative.


  2. Kevin Arthur

    This is truly interesting stuff, but I’m not sure that working scientists will be receptive to an outsider bringing up some of these topics, so you may want to tread carefully. 🙂 Philosophy and sociology of science are not studied a lot by working scientists, or at least that’s my impression.

    I work in HCI and also have an amateur interest in this, as well as in philosophy of technology, though I come from a different world (computer science).

    Along the lines of Latour, the “Golem” books by Pinch and Collins are interesting reads, more in the form of case studies.

  3. ron day

    Interestingly, I’ve been on the same path. I, too, thought that this was all known by colleagues. But, slowly, it seems to me that it isn’t or is not thought through at a philosophical level.
    Yet, if the term ‘science’ is to carry such sociological and epistemic weight, it seems necessary to look at these foundational questions, at least for the sake of students being trained in the sciences. And coming from the humanities, the question is important as to what role ‘the humanities’ play in or in addition to these ‘scientific’ activities (beside that of explaining science according to epistemology).
    I haven’t found that my colleagues that I have interacted with on this have been hostile to such questions–these aren’t questions that they deal with in their research, though some of them have thought about them to various degrees of depth. Such questions have also been ways for me–naively, I must admit–to find out more about what they do and how they think about it. I think that there is a lot of value in this, at the very least, for various reasons.


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