If a person knows he is being denied an opportunity... he can never be quite certain whether his lack of desire for it is shaped by the fact that it is unavailable to him (“sour grapes”). That gnawing uncertainty counts as a harm.
– Jon Elster

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch.

Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
– Aesop

A research programme that would be very illuminating and very unpopular: How much is someone’s methodology to do with rationalising their particular abilities?

Does not having the skill to conduct either quantitative or qualitative research correlate with denying its value? (Clearly yes.)

Given that people very often adjust their desires to their opportunities, and given that methodology should ride on higher things, I propose a trio of studies to check the academic community’s hygiene:

  • Sour symbols: Disparaging or emphasising the limits of quantitative reason because you yourself are bad at maths.

  • Sour mouth: Disparaging or emphasising the limits of qualitative reason because you yourself are bad at criticism or phenomenology.

  • Scoundrel bastions: What fields do people with neither competence flock to?

The inverted forms – seeing what you’re good at as a superior insight into the world (“sweet lemons” and “mind projection”) – are as important, but hopefully get captured in the first correlation.

One could use the SAT or GRE to obtain a proxy of verbal and mathematical reasoning ability; people would object to this, 1) rightly because timed tests are an artificial measure of research ability – they can prove ability, but they can’t really disprove real-life ability – and 2) wrongly, because it threatened their status.

By combining the two studies within-subjects, we could derive a general factor of adaptive methodology: how much a given person is swayed by their own lack of skill. This could be a proxy for how rationally they conduct themselves in general.

I respect Putnam’s and Rorty’s criticisms of positivism because I know they are profoundly skilled in logic; I trust Deirdre McCloskey much more in her postmodern libertarian feminism because she was both a quantitative historian and a socialist in her youth.

Good methodology can substitute for brilliance: if you follow the scientific method long enough, you will find stuff out, almost regardless of your acuity or creativity.

An unfortunate demonstration is Thomas Midgley’s discovery of tetraethyl lead: “At war’s end he resumed his search for a gasoline additive, systematically working his way through promising elements in the periodic table, and in 1921 he and his team found that minute amounts of tetraethyl lead completely eliminated engine knock.” Four years of dumb permutation!

If you can understand an algorithm’s steps, you can perform incredibly complex mathematics given only patience and a pen. (Or wings.) In programming, object-oriented languages enforce a simple stepped method that allows numpties to make, well, most of the internet.

Relatedly: to have the studies produce results of lasting worth – rather than results for wreaking retribution on idle methodologists – we’d want to track the things that practitioners did. (Though is there any such thing as a practitioner, in philosophy?)

My saying ‘methodology’ in the above makes the point seem irrelevant to anyone but academics or devoted autodidacts. (The word only really denotes the formal and contrived ways that we act when we know we’ll have to face scrutiny.) But the implications go way beyond those islands in the sun to the grody places in which most thought lives.

  • Computer science: the methodology is necessarily quantitative.
  • Philosophy: methodology largely qualitative (though with a distinct subculture of utter quants / meta-quants). Everyone's a methodologist.


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Tags: science, scepticism


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