Rigorous Quantification and Disciplinary Rigidity

Epistemology can be translated as the study of how we know or an account of how we know.

In the article I link to below, UT PhD candidate Mark Coddington does a nice job delineating the different situations which generate the epistemological orientations of political journalists vs. that of social scientists.

I would like to add a few comments of my own. Specifically, I would point out a notion from Edmund Husserl’s “Philosophy as a Rigorous Science.” Whenever a given scientist brings forth specific facts presented within the margins of a hypothesis or theory, the situation of the researcher is one of unfolding data, bridging previously unconnected areas, and specifying other directions of profitable inquiry. The method works within the realm of not being completely certain about the truth but of being reasonably certain about further trustworthy lines for research.

This is where I would detail a supremely important distinction between the disciplinized scientist who makes factual claims and the non-scientist who does things with facts. Those who receive what the sciences generate tend to fall under a category I label “make-doers.” All of us can be said to be make-doers: we cobble this together with that, we lodge the small square thing in the larger round hole, etc etc.

How folks make-do with scientific facts is not in the control of the researchers who produce those facts.

I am not lauding this aspect of human existence. But it is important to grasp it. My favorite example for my friends involves Newton & Gravity. When Newton’s philosophizing of nature brought forth observations of flux & motion, he provided a concept with which most folks are extremely familiar: Gravity. The interesting issue, of course, involves how gravity is not itself a cause (or why things move) but a mathematical description of motion (or how things move).  The assumed cause of all motion in Newton’s Principia is GOD. But the making of precise observations does not exclude how we will take up such facts and then will tend to make-do a new kind of “certainty.” Ask almost any adult: why does X fall? Because of gravity. End of discussion; I am certain about that, I’ll tell ya what!

For me, Coddington is pointing out an aspect of this Husserlean distinction. The epistemology of journalists–who evaluate data to produce narratives backed up by factual certainties –finds itself increasingly at odds with a new group of socio-politically engaged Quants. These technoscientific statisticians are just doing what they do: making probable models of measurable processes. But they have decided to put these precise facts at the disposal of anyone with an internet connection.

As the work of the Quants becomes more available, journalists can either adapt their epistemology to include these observations–as philosophers adapted their own methods to take into account physics–or they can continue to misrepresent precise evaluation by these statisticians as though the probabilities are being offered as certain knowledge. Because that is certainly a mis-characterization.

The danger of this new rigorous quantification is that more and more folks will start making-do with the probabilities as though they are complete certainties. There is also the danger that followers of the quants will begin to forget that there are many strata of latent judgments built into these evaluative models, judgments that need to be made patent on a regular basis to ensure a good accounting by the researchers as to what they are doing and how their work impacts society.

I have a few more thoughts on this which I may follow through on–later rather than sooner. But until then, take a look at Coddington’s article:

The more I think about the rift between political journalism and Nate Silver, the more it seems that it’s one that’s fundamentally an issue of epistemology — how journalists know what they know. Here’s why I think that’s the case.

When we talk about the epistemology of journalism, it all eventually ties into objectivity. The journalistic norm of objectivity is more than just a careful neutrality or attempt to appear unbiased; for journalists, it’s the grounds on which they claim the authority to describe reality to us. And the authority of objectivity is rooted in a particular process.

That process is very roughly this: Journalists get access to privileged information from official sources, then evaluate, filter, and order it through the rather ineffable quality alternatively known as “news judgment,” “news sense,” or “savvy.” This norm of objectivity is how political journalists say to the public (and to themselves), “This is why you can trust what we say we know — because we found it out through this process.” (This is far from a new observation – there are decades of sociological research on this.)

Silver’s process — his epistemology — is almost exactly the opposite of this:

Where political journalists’ information is privileged, his is public, coming from poll results that all the rest of us see, too…

Continue reading @ Why political journalists can’t stand Nate Silver: The limits of journalistic knowledge | Mark Coddington.

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