Posts Tagged ‘Science’

A summary of ‘Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class’ by Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman

February 17, 2017

Deslauriers et al. (2011) measured learning outcomes from research-based instruction in a university introductory level physics class. The outcomes were compared to outcomes from tutoring the same material in traditional lectures by an experienced and highly rated instructor. That is, the latter was used as control in a purportedly controlled experiment.

science332Deslauriers et al. (2011) found that students subject to research-based instruction scored more than twice as well as students subject to traditional lecture tutoring (74% vs. 41%). Both attendance and engagement reportedly went up. The authors were seemingly puzzled by the increased attendance (‘reason not known’), while it seems obviously a case of rubbernecking or something similar but more sophisticated. (Google awaits!)

The research-based instruction in question (it could be almost anything) was designed to have students engage in deliberate practice at thinking scientifically. Thinking scientifically was taken as making and testing predictions and arguments about relevant topics, solving problems, and questioning their own reasoning and that of others, presumably after the appropriate reasoning was revealed. Multiple (unspecified) ‘best instructional practices’ were incorporated, but the educational benefit was believed to derive from the overall, integrated deliberate practice framework rather than any particular practice. Class schedules were mostly an alternating sequence of discussions in small student groups, clicker questions, and instructor feedback. That the measured engagement in such classes surpasses the measured engagement in traditional lectures comes as no surprise.

While I am personally convinced that active learning and deliberate practice better provide learning than traditional lectures, I have doubts regarding size of the reported effect and both internal and external validity of the experiment.

Could other factors influence the measured learning outcomes and reduce the real effect of research-based instrution? Two obvious factors are that the research-based instruction was more resource intensive (the instructor had an assistant in class throughout the experiment; materials were pilot-tested before used in class) and contrbution of the Hawthorne effect (‘where any change in conditions is said to result in improved performance’). Regarding the latter, one may add temporarily. The Hawthorne effect is, interestingly enough, dismissed by Deslauriers et al. (2011) because the effect could not be detected in the original Hawthorne data. But that the effect was not present in some data does not mean that the effect does not exist.

How well was the experiment controlled? The experiment group (subjected to research-based instruction) was instructed by two of the authors of the study, and not the usual instructor. This is presented as something that should reduce the measured effect because the authors had less teaching experience and background knowledge in physics. Clearly, the experiment would be better controlled if the usual instructor was trained and assisted (outside of class) in research-based instruction. The experiment would also be better controlled if the experiment and control group had had the same instructor prior to the experiment. Alas, they did not. Both of these improvements would have been readily achievable.

Can the findings be generalized outside the experiment, like tutoring in other subjects, and at all university level tutoring? The experiment lasted for one week, so the foremost concern is whether the research-based instrution would provide a similar effect on the full-scale course level. I am sure it would, but research-based instruction, as argued above, does require more resources than the traditional lectures. A ‘twice as well’ effect is probably unlikely, however (Hawthorne again, and temporality).

In a subsequent survey of the students subjected to the research-based instruction, students express satisfaction with the alternative form of instruction. This finding is taken as evidence against concerns of student opposition towards changes in the instruction. But not all students answered the survey, and measures were taken within the experiment group to avoid resistance against the instructional approach. The survey evidence is thus questionable if not useless.

It amazes me that a study with so many obvious weaknesses is published in one of the most prestiguous scientific journals.

Deslauriers, L, E. Schelew, C. Wieman (2011), Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science 332, 862 – 864.

What is Science?

August 4, 2013

What is this grand enterprise called science that has lit up heaven and earth and empowered humanity? It is organized, testable knowledge of the real world, of everything around us as well as ourselves, as opposed to the endlessly varied beliefs people hold from myth and superstition. It is the combination of physical and mental operations that have become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations dedicated to the most effective way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge [E. O. Wilson, 2013, Letters to a Young Scientist, p. 55].

I find myself reading the latest book by Edward O. Wilson; Letters to a Young Scientist. In a weak moment, I picked it up at an airport. Too late did I realize Wilson is the father of human sociobiology although I recently read harsh criticism, offered by Stephen Jay Gould, of the entire discipline. If I had remembered when I came across Wilson’s Letters, I might not have bought it and wouldn’t have found myself disliking the book now. His explanation of what science is, for example, is not very precise or all-encompassing, and not particularly helpful to the young scientist. Anyway, Wilson has been a researcher for some six decades and I hope some of the lessons he offers will be helpful. (I realize I am not among the readers Wilson had in mind, being a social scientist. But it doesn’t really matter. Science, social or not, is a social enterprise, and all science builds upon the same, philosophical foundation and requires much of the same type of motivation and drive to pursue.)

Vijay Iyer: A Scientific Musician

March 23, 2012

Perhaps it is about time to kick this old blog back to life. I will start with a post about Vijay Iyer. I came across an interview with him, of all places, in Nature (483, p. 157). Vijay Iyer is a jazz pianist who plays a kind of progressive jazz, very interesting stuff although not entirely my cup of tea. It is nice, but not very groovy. What is extraordinary about Iyer is that he has a scientific background which he applies to his music. He started out in physics, but took a PhD in music perception and cognition. In his dissertation, he studied the perception of rhythm. From the Nature-interview:

Why focus on rhythm?
At the primal level, music is rhythm first, the sound of bodies in synchronous action. That is why there is a pulse in music. Rhythm perception is an imagined movement in the motor centres of the brain. Our skill for coordinating our actions is the real foundation of music, and possibly of civilization.

I have listened to Iyer and his trio quite a bit the last couple of days. Rhythm, and the seeming lack thereof, is an important part of Iyer’s music. What he does with the rhythm on Mystic Brew is simply amazing. No doubt, he is a highly skilled musician. It is also fascinating how he applies scientific ideas to his music in a very direct way.

How do you use scientific ideas in your music?
Some composers might write a string quartet ‘about’ string theory, but that is just inspiration, it is not really discovery. I’m more of an experimentalist. There is an auditory illusion of a constantly ascending pitch, known as Shepard tones: the musical equivalent of M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase. As the pitch goes up, the distribution of harmonics shifts down, and your ear can’t find the place where it doubles back on itself. I used this illusion in a string quartet by asking the players to perform a synchronized glissando in parallel octaves and imposing a bell curve on their amplitudes. It worked. After that, I asked, can we do this with tempo? At the end of the title track on Historicity, there is a rhythm that constantly decelerates. On Accelerando, there is a piece giving the illusion of constant acceleration, of a tempo that flexes.

What is the future of music?
People walk around with headphones on, thinking of music as a solitary, personalized pursuit. But it has connected us by synchronizing our actions throughout human history. Because we are so engrossed in the technical aspects, it is easy for scientists, and even for musicians, to forget that the effects of music are primarily emotional. That is why people keep it in their lives.

The emotional side of music is what makes it interesting, and why mainstream, popular music seldom has much appeal to anyone with more than a superficial interest.

Sonnet – To Science by Edgar Allan Poe

August 28, 2010

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realitites?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Fisheries Classics: The Tragedy of the Commons

April 13, 2010

Garret Hardin’s 1968 article in Science, The Tragedy of the Commons is for sure a classical piece in the fisheries economics literature and has become the most popular description of the commons problem; fisheries problems are usually regarded as a special case. The passage where Hardin describes the tragedy is perhaps the most famous:

Garret Hardin (1915 - 2003)

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his [input] without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244).

Hardin has had an enormous influence, perhaps particularly in the sciences. It has been suggested (by notable persons as Jim Wilen and Elinor Ostrom) that Hardin’s choice of metaphor (the tragedy, where helpless individuals are lead to destruction in an inexorable process) has been unfortunate; Wilen, for example, has written that modern fisheries management systems are founded on a perception of tragedy.

Related post:

Rebuilding Global Fisheries

September 15, 2009

Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn, and, among others, Chris Costello, recently had the article ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ in Science (Vol 325, pp. 578 – 585). It discusses trends in the rebuilding of fisheries and marine ecosystems. The inherent problem in fisheries is the tragedy of the commons; many fisheries are poorly managed and access rights are not distributed properly. ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ touches upon it in the introduction:

[…] progress toward curbing overfishing has been hindered by an unwillingness or inability to bear the short-term social and economic costs of reducing fishing [p. 578].

And again, while discussing species collapse:

Rebuilding […] collapsed stocks may require trading off short-term yields for conservation benefits [p. 581].

Short-term costs are like an investment in future abundacy; if fishermen are uncertain whether the promised future will enrich themselves, they will probably avoid the investment if they can. Accordingly, Worm et al. list access rights and economic incentives among tools for rebuilding fisheries:

Assingning dedicated access privileges, such as catch shares or territorial fishing rights, to individual fishers or fishing communities has often provided economic incentives to reduce effort and exploitation rate […] Realigning economic incentives with resource conservation (rather than overexploitation) is increasingly recognized as a critical component of successful rebuilding efforts [p. 583].

Another problem for many fisheries is simply that they are located in the developing world:

On a global scale, a key problem for rebuilding is the movement of fishing effort from industrialized countries to the developing world […] This north-south redistribution of fisheries has been accelerating since the 1960s […] and could in part be a perverse side effect of efforts to restore depleted fisheries in the developed world, as some fishing effort is displaced to countries with weaker laws and enforcement capacity [p. 584].

Collapsed fisheries in the developed world, like the Canadian Northern Cod scandal, are also a likely source of effort movements to the developing world. Further, the technological ability to fish far from, and even independent of, (home) port, poorly regulated fisheries, limited enforcement of regulations, corrupted, political systems, and lack of knowledge are all probable reasons for the sorry state of many fisheries in the developing world. Also, many fisheries in the developing world are small-scale, artisanal fisheries and such fisheries cannot be managed in the same way as industrial fisheries (p. 582).

Finally, Worm et al. discusses open questions in relation to the rebuilding of fisheries. One I found interesting (I’m doing related research) relates to by-catch problems of vulnerable, and, one might add, endangered species:

[An area] of inquiry relates to the question of how to avoid contentious trade-offs betweeen allowable catch and the conservation of vulnerable or collapsed species. Recovering these species while maintaing global catches may be possible through  improved gear technology and a much more widespread use of ocean zoning into areas that are managed for fisheries benefits and others managed for species and habitat conservation. Designing appropriate incentive for fishers to avoid the catch of threatened species, for example, through tradable catch and by-catch quotas has yielded good results in some regions [p. 584].

In conclusion, Worm et al. has a grand view for fisheries science:

We envision a seascape where the rebuilding, conservation, and sustainable use of marine resources becomes unifying themes for science, management, and society. We caution that the road to recovery is not always simple and not without short-term costs. Yet it remains our only option for insuring fisheries and marine ecosystems against further depletion and collapse [p. 584].

Maybe the most important message I take home from ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ is the crucial role the economist must play in order to make conservation and rebuilding strategies work; incentives matter and are very important. The same message, by the way, is made by Gardner Brown & Jason Shogren  in relation to the Endangered Species Act (I’ve posted excerpts from their article here).

Hat-tip: Legal Planet

Economics: A Science or Not?

August 23, 2009

I came across this truly interesting book, Truth Versus Precision in Economics (1993) by Thomas Mayer. I’m still only on p. 16, but endnote 1 in chapter one provided fodder for my thinking about economics and science:

I see no purpose in discussing whether economics actually is a science. Philosophers have not succeeded in finding a criterion that distinguishes science from non-science […], and the question whether a field is an empirical science may even lack clear meansing […]. Fortunately, nothing hinges on whether one calls economics a science or not, and the question can be left to lexicographers. Knowing whether economics is a science would not allow us to decide whether  it should use the same methods as the natural sciences, since not all sciences necessarily us the same methods. What methods economics should use can be decided better by looking at specific methods and specific problems than by talking in general about ‘scientific method’. Similarly, knowing whether economics is a science would not allow us to say whether it provides answers that deserve a high degree of credence. The science of weather forecasting does not, while the non-science of history does [p. 8, paperback edition].

I agree that nothing really important hinges on whether economics belong to the (hard) sciences or not (what matters is that it is scientific). But, Mayer doesn’t seem to recognize that the English science has lost it’s propper meaning (here’s McCloskey’s explanation): Science means ‘systematic inquiry’ in any other language.

Related posts:

The Cult of Statistical Significance by Ziliak & McCloskey

July 28, 2009

The Cult of Statistical SignificanceLast year, Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey published The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. I finished it a while ago now (during my trip to Alaska, in fact; a lot of time available on those planes), and I want to discuss it here.

Before checking out my amateur opinions, however, it may be wise to check out some the reviews that Ziliak kindly has gathered on his homepage. I, for example, found the one from Science (by Theodore Porter) interesting. Only read the review in Journal of Economic Literature (by Saul Hymans) if you don’t plan to read the book itself. You may settle with the following, closing paragraph:

Despite my firm belief that most applied econometricians would benefit from adopting the methodological position presented by Ziliak and McCloskey and that economics as science would be improved significantly thereby, I can’t close without something of a rebuke. As often happens when someone is pushing what the mainstream considers an extreme or fringe position, the arguments become narrowly and harshly focused. This comes through too often in Ziliak and McCloskey. In its particularly narrow perspective, their treatment of the professional accomplishments of a number of exceptionally gifted economists is simply unjustified. Included among such economists are Gary Becker, Trygve Haavelmo, Harold Hotelling, Lawrence Klein, and Paul Samuelson. It is especially unfortunate, for example, that Ziliak and McCloskey misrepresent the significance of Haavelmo’s pathbreaking article of 1944 and never even mention his major contribution of 1947, a piece which Ziliak and McCloskey should find quite simpatico [p. 503].

The ‘review’ in the Journal of Economic Methodology (by Tom Engsted) is a full-length article discussing a debate surrounding the Ziliak & McCloskey book.

So, I hope you’re fed up already: Here are my (largely unqualified) opinions on and comments to this book. As (almost) always; first things first: The Cult of Statistical Significance carries some important messages (despite it’s terrible title; maybe they were inspired by the dreadful Andrew Keen). The Cult tells us that statistical significance is not the same thing as substantive significance, that statistical significance is often misused and appears to be misunderstood by many a scientist (and particularly economists), and that only by attending to quantitative, scientific magnitude and judgement will sciences like medicine (yes, medicine), economics, and other statistically confused fields be able to move ‘into the age of science and humanity’ (p. 251; all page references are to the paperback edition). Alright, maybe the last one there may be discussed (and the quote is slightly out of context); notwithstanding, Ziliak and McCloskey certainly feels that way, wants their readers to feel that way, and bring a lot of good arguments to the table.

A quick, non-technical update on statistical significance is found here, by the way. From the first paragraph:

In normal English, “significant” means important, while in Statistics “significant” means probably true (not due to chance). A research finding may be true without being important. When statisticians say a result is “highly significant” they [should] mean it is very probably true.

Everyone who understands statistical significance understands that substantial significance is something else and the more important of the two. The disagreement would be whether statistical significance is misused, misunderstood, or both. Perhaps, then, Ziliak and McCloskey’s crown argument is their study of the practice with statistical significance in the American Economic Review during the 1980s. (To those unaware; a publication in the AER is among the most prestigious and important things an economist can achieve, particularly in terms of their career.) Their findings, discussed in chapter 6 (pp. 74-78) and published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1996, is discouraging. The best economists (that is, those publishing in the AER in the 1980s) misuse statistical significance to a large degree.

Next, Ziliak and McCloskey do something odd. Faced with arguments from colleagues that best practice had improved since the 1980s, perhaps partly because of their 1996 article, they go ahead and do another study of the practice in the AER in the 1990s:

We are very willing to believe that since the 1980s our colleagues have stopped making an elementary error and especially that we have changed their minds. But being readers of typical economics articles since that first decace of personal computers [the 1980s] we seriously doubted that fishing for significance had much abated. […] And so in a second article, published in 2004, we [reapplied our study from 1996] to all the full-length empirical articles of the next decade of the AER, the 1990s [p. 79].

There’s a logical flaw here. If Ziliak and McCloskey caused the change with their 1996 article, it won’t show up in a study of the 1990s! And probably not of the first decade of the new millenium either; changes take a while, often a generation or so (just ask Thomas Kuhn, rephrased by Paul A. Samuelson in 1999: ‘Science advances funeral by funeral’). And indeed, Ziliak and McCloskey(or, McCloskey and Ziliak, as the reference will show) doesn’t find much of an improvement in the 1990s compared to the 1980s.

Of course, Ziliak and McCloskey have ideas on why scientific practice in the AER has not changed:

Significance unfortunately is a useful means toward personal ends in the advance of science – status and widely distributed publications, a big laboratory, a staff or research assistants, a reduction in teaching load, a better salary, the finer wines of Bordeaux. Precision, knowledge, and control. In a narrow and cynical sense statisitcal significance is the way to achieve these. Design experiment. Then calculate statistical significance. Publish articles showing “significant” results. Enjoy promotion.

But it is not science, and it will not last [p. 32].

They may be right. But, one cannot forget the position of the AER among economists. Because of it’s career generating potential, economists are likely to mimic it, both methodologically and rhetorically.

Still, Ziliak and McCloskey’s empirical evidence of the poor econometric practice in the AER is striking and convincing. I am now skeptic towards empirical economists. And not only economists: Ziliak and McCloskey summarizes evidence of bad practice in psychology, medicine, ecology and several other fields. One gets the impression that only the ‘hard’ sciences got it right (and I who used to think that medicine was a hard science).

In Ziliak and McCloskey’s view, one man is responsible for most of the statistical mess in economics and other fields: R. A. Fisher, whose Statistical Methods for Research Workers (1925), which went through no less than 14 editions, laid down the foundations for much of the later, statistical practice in many applied statistical fields. Ziliak and McCloskey attacks Fisher hard, in an almost distasteful way (they even accuse him of ‘outright, scientific fraud’ in an endnote somewhere, I’m sure, but I wasn’t able to find back to it), and large parts of the second half of the book they devote to attack Fisher in various ways and contrast him to (their hero, it appears) William Sealy Gosset, better know as ‘Student’ (look up Student-t). Maybe even more absurd is the blame put on the philosophical trends of the time:

One reason for the success of the Fisherian program against more logical alternatives […] is that the Fisherian program emerged just as neopositivismand then falsificationism emerged in the philosophy of science. It would have fallen flat in philosophically more subtle times, such as those of Mill’s System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) or Imre Lakatos’s Proofs and Refutations (1976). No serious philosopher nowadays is a positivist, no seroius philosopher of science a simple falsificationist. But the philosophical atmosphere of 1922-62 was perfect for the fastening of Fisher’s grip on the [statistically confused] sciences [p. 149].

Toward the end, after the very interesting chapter 23 (pp. 238-244), Ziliak and McCloskey get almost out of hand. On pages 249-250, they propose a “Statement on the proprieties of Substantive Significance” which they want editors, administrators and scientists to sign. The language of their ‘statement’ is, however, to involved and won’t hold as a standalone statement. I don’t understand the purpose of the statement when it isn’t self-containted, and otherwise just repeats a message that has been pounded upon throughout the book. And they keep pounding it, increasing their volume:

The textbooks are wrong. The teaching is wrong. The seminar you just attended is wrong. The most prestigious journal in your scientific field is wrong [p. 250].

Got it.

I had high expectations for this book, particularly because McCloskey’s name was on the cover. I was sligthly disappointed, however. By close examination, I discovered that McCloskey’s name is put last and that they’ve ignored the alphabetical order of names: Ziliak is the main author. It is obvious in some places, Ziliak don’t have McCloskey’s Economical Writing under his skin (neither do I, of course, but I would expect McCloskey to). This is a minor issue, certainly, but I looked forward to some persuasive, well-written, and witful prose of the kind McCloskey promotes in her Economical Writing; most of the time, it didn’t happen.

UPDATE: I have a hundred things to say about this book, but I cannot say them all at once. My above review is bad, I know, and I apologize. I confused the important things I wanted to say with the unimportant ones. I may get back to the book in later posts, but for now, I suggest the reader rather reads my discussion of the debate between Spanos and Ziliak & McCloskey. It presumable gives a better idea of what’s important in the book and yields more enjoyable and interesting reading.

And, for the record, let me again point out that I agree with Ziliak & McCloskey on their main point in The Cult, as stated in their reply to Spanos:

Statistical significance is neither necessary nor sufficient for substantive scientific significance.

What is Science?

January 15, 2009

Despite my earlier efforts, the strange usage of ‘science’ in the English language still obstructs the discussion over on Climate Progress. John McCormick writes

Here is a definition of the word ‘science’

“1. the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts. 2. the organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation. 3. any specific branch of this general body of knowledge, such as biology, physics, geology, or astronomy.”

Academic Press Dictionary of Science & Technology […]

Economics does nto [sic] fit the definition of science, in my opinion. So, scientific norms do not apply [when it comes to economics.]

McCloskey tracks the current use of ‘science’ back to 1867 (p. 20 in ‘The Rhetoric of Econmics,’ 2nd ed.). Earlier ‘science’ meant ‘studies,’  in line with its counterpart in other Indo-European languages. The weird thing is that today,  its counterpart in most languages hasn’t really changed meaning; it means ‘systematic inquiry’ and is not explicitly chained to ‘natural events.’ It is thus used to describe, e.g., philosphy and studies of poetry and language, as well as physics and chemistry. It is thus absurd that economics is a science in other languages, but not in English. What are we supposed to make of this? I let McCloskey explain (p. 21).

The point is that the foreigners have gotten it right. […] “Economics is a science” should not be the fighting words they are in English. The fighting lacks point because, as our friends across the water could have told us, nothing important depends on its outcome. Economics in particular is merely a disciplined inquiry into the market for rice or the scarcity of love. Economics is a collection of literary forms, some of them expressed in mathematics, not a Science. Indeed, science is a collection of literary forms, not a Science. And literary forms are scientific. […] The idea that science is a way of talking, not a separate realm of Truth, has become common among students of science since Thomas Kuhn.[*]

So, what’s important is that economics is scientific. Economics might not be a science in the U.S., but it is certainly scientific and scientific norms do apply.

* Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) was maybe the most influental philosopher of science in the twentieth century. Anyone slightly interested in science, philosophy or generally should read his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.’

Economics IS a Science!

January 14, 2009

In the comment section to Joe Romm’s third post on the evil of economists a very interesting comment surfaced. (My previous post links to Romm’s earlier attacks and some responses.) It is signed by ‘Asteroid Miner’ (comment no. 7):

Economists think that they are scientists. They are not. Science deals with NATURE, not man-made things like markets and money. Science requires and is based on public and replicable experiments. Computer simulations don’t count. Social sciences are suspect, but not as bad as economics. SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENTS ARE NOT POSSIBLE IN ECONOMICS.

Economics presupposes the existence of a stable civilization and the invention of money. A stable civilization with money requires creatures that are at least marginally rational and intelligent and slightly knowledgeable. A stable civilization also requires an adequate food supply. The collapse of agriculture inevitably leads to the collapse of civilization and the collapse of money and economics. Economics is unable to go outside of its founding presuppositions. Global warming climatology MUST concern itself with the collapse of civilization and the possible extinction of the supposedly rational intelligent knowledgeable creatures. Climate change is therefore impossible for economists to imagine AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN ECONOMISTS.

Thus the problem of economists who speak on the subject of global warming. Being economists, they assume the impossible, which is that agriculture will not collapse, civilization will not collapse and Homo Sapiens will not go extinct. Being economists, they are unable to imagine anything outside of the basic presuppositions of economics. They have made those assumptions implicitly since long before their careers began. They cannot do otherwise. They are money oriented. It is a basic part of their personalities. They cannot change by themselves.

Our project, therefore, is to make economists quit being economists prior to the collapse of civilization. It is only by taking them outside of their economic world view that they can be shown how to imagine another world, a world without economics. We have to somehow show them the limitations of the boundaries of their world. We have to shock them into the realization that their world is a very small subset of reality.

My reply:

Asteroid: The English ’science’ has, since the late nineteenth century, been used in a new, weird, sense. Earlier, it meant ’studies.’ It’s counterpart in German (wissenschaft), French (science), and all other Indo-European languages mean ’systematic inquiry’ rather than something that deals with nature. Why the English term went off-track, I don’t know, but statements like ‘economics is not a science’ looks very weird to me (a foreigner). […]

What I see as the misuse of ‘science’ in English has irritated me for a while (and is related to The English Problem). It was then heartening to read Deirdre McCloskey‘s ‘The Rhetoric of Economics.’ On page 20 (second edition) and onwards she discusses and compares the use of ‘science’ to its counterparts in ‘all Indo-European languages.’ She also quotes Lord Kelvin, who in 1883 obiously helped make ‘science’ absurd:

When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind […] It may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in you thoughts advanced to the stage of science.

I conclude that economics is a science after all, only not in English.

The English problem

January 1, 2009

Daniel Hamermesh asks some interesting questions about the position of the English language in academic circles over on the Freakonomics blog. (Many of the comments are worth reading if you’re interested.) I think it is safe to say that English is the most widely used language in scientific articles these days; maybe some Russian mathematicians still publish in Russian and I think Chinese research is published in Chinese. However, English is the new ‘lingua franca,’ as Hamermesh points out (English dominant position goes beyond the academic world, ofcourse). ‘I feel guilty about this,’ Hamermesh writes,

and all American economists should: It’s easier for us to write our scholarly papers than it is for other economists; it’s easier for us to function internationally.

That exact problem bugs me every single day. In the recent year I’ve put efforts into improving my english; this very blog is one of my training facilities. Had English been my mother tounge I would be able to put more efforts into the research I’m supposed to conduct and less into studying English. Notwithstanding, a lot of American economists could with advantage pay more attention to how they use their language (just ask McCloskey). And, ofcourse, I’m in the same boat as all other researchers who have an other mother tounge than English. Still, however, the English problem bugs me every time I read an English word or sentence that is not immediate to me.

Would I prefer a world with a world language? Well, I don’t know. For one thing, if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t miss it. And, an instant switch from 200+ languages (I’m sure there’s more, but I think there’s at least 200 languages around in active use) to one world language is impossible. So the question is hypothetical (I’ve realized that most (philosohical) questions are, and I have to work on my ‘distaste’ for them). Another thing is that in todays world, a situation with one world language is not a sustainable situation; different corners that are more or less unconnected, say, Inner Mongolia and Outer Sahara, would develop dialects and words independent of each other and soon one could not talk of only one world language anymore. But  apart from these problems, I think Yes, I would prefer a one language world.