catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Railway lines of thought

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Railway lines of thought are the seldom-examined assumptions that dominate our thinking, sometimes in profoundly damaging ways. Obvious examples are the views of religous and political fundamentalists of various kinds. Some obsessions are more benign, at the level of personal idiosyncracies like supporting a particular football team. Over the years I have collected various examples of these railway lines and I will share some of these in case they are helpful and illuminating. This example comes from Liam Hudson’s captivating book The Cult of the Fact which describes his time in philosophy and psychology at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1950s.


With his permission I have put some chapters of this book on line in the Hudson edition of the Revivalist series(warning, it is a slow-loading word file).The following extract describes the induction process in British psychology at a time when someone wrote that you could read a great deal of the literature without realising that it had anything to do with human beings.

Any explanation we offered, any theory we postulated, any result we described had to be defined operationally – in terms of input and output, stimulus and response. We were set to do science in exactly the way that the chemist or physicist does it. Our experiments, like theirs, had to be work that any technically competent stranger could replicate. We were practising, in Medawar’s well-worn phrase, the art of the soluble. Like philosophers’ examples, the experiments we performed in that little building, a converted school, had about them an air -sometimes arch, sometimes defiant – of contrivance and triviality. In dusty rooms, scruffy as only experimental psychologists can make them, we sorted cards, watched flashing lights, pressed bars, and once or twice watched white rats wander disconsolately through poorly constructed mazes. We discovered nothing of much interest, either about the rats or about ourselves; and it was never hinted that we might. Our highest ambition was to refute a theory; or, failing that, to lend it conditional support. Any idea that we were there to uncover the mysteries of the human mind, to plumb the depths of the psyche, would have been greeted with embarrassment; the kind of embarrassment that hardens into derision, and eventually into contempt. Just as a man on a desert island was held to illuminate the moral order, so a rat or monkey or student pressing a bar was thought to illuminate the brain. However odd, even mildly bizarre, such an assumption can now be made to seem, it unquestionably exerted a powerful grip. And it did so for a reason that is essentially aesthetic. The belief that the truth can be laid bare by parsimonious means is inherently handsome. The conceit that this can be done by means that are trivial is perhaps inbred and even a little decadent, but attractive none the less.

Such assumptions about research were rarely discussed, and as far as I can recall, never critically examined. Sustaining them, inarticulate, were certain more pervasive beliefs about knowledge itself. Here the influences of philosophy and psychology flowed together. The attitudes to knowledge I had assimilated were a caricature of the posture of the Anglo-Saxon empiricist: the atomistic belief I have already mentioned – that science is built by piling one fact upon another; a quasi-religious faith in the ideas of stimulus and response; a distrust of any but precise, small-scale theories; a contempt for social science, and disregard for any social or cultural process; an avoidance in research of personal feelings, or personal experience; and a taste for mechanical and electronic metaphor.

As a group, we accepted without question our teachers’ right not only to define what we should learn, but also to judge us once we had learnt it. And to judge us totally. If they judged us second-rate, as they usually did, second-rate we thought we were, and second-rate we tended to become. Willing enough to argue an interpretation in detail – about what exactly it was that followed from Ayer’s view of knowledge, or the Gestalt theory of perception – we accepted, lock and stock, our teachers’ prejudices about the limits of useful inquiry. Unwittingly, in fact, we guyed them. I am sure I was not alone, for instance, in writing essays, vigorous but barren, that destroyed the whole fabric of psychoanalytic thought on the grounds that its assumptions could not be experimentally defined.

Quite possibly, our docility in such matters was especially marked. Many months after reaching Oxford, I still swallowed with difficulty the impulse to call all figures in authority ‘Sir’ – even the first-year research student, Boy Scout badge in his button-hole, who gave us extra tuition in Latin. It is just possible, too, that both philosophy and psychology at Oxford were then passing through a particularly dogmatic phase; and that those who exercised academic authority over us did so with unusual self-confidence and conviction. My suspicion, though, is that every generation of students is susceptible to its teachers’ presuppositions, and that these presuppositions are potent just to the extent that they are unspoken. It is assumptions, prejudices and implicit metaphors that are the true burden of what passes between teacher and taught. Facts, skills, details are in comparison ephemeral, in the sciences especially, but in the arts as well. They are also identifiable – and rejectable. What the teacher spells out, the pupil can question. What he assumes, especially from a position of unchallenged legitimacy, his pupils will tend to swallow whole and unawares.

Among British scientists, and with few exceptions, the pure look down on the applied, the physical on the biological. And all combine to look down on the social, or ‘Mickey Mouse’ scientists, who are scarcely scientists at all. The ideal is to work with one’s head, not one’s hands; to be conceptually neat rather than messy. And, as elsewhere, exceptions to these rules are usually associated with large sums of money and with popular acclaim.

Psychology stands low in this pecking order, and contains a pecking order within it. Again, the pure look down on the applied, and the clean on the messy. The experimental, usually physical or biological in background, look down on the social, industrial, clinical and educational. The psychologist of high status works in a laboratory, and studies either a sub-human species – rat, pigeon, monkey – or some simple aspect of human skill. The psychologist of low status works with human beings in their natural habitat, and studies them in their full complexity. The psychologist of high status works on problems that to the untutored eye seem trivial; the one of low status, on problems that laymen are more likely to understand.

As in all systems of social snobbery, participants are under continual pressure to appear, indeed to become, what they are not. Research problems tend as a consequence, in psychology at least, to be tackled in a manner which is more artificial than either common sense or logic would dictate. Each problem is ‘promoted’ until it reaches its own level of methodological inappropriateness. The social psychologist, a creature of low status, acquires higher status by being an experimental social psychologist, and working in a laboratory fitted out with booths and one-way screens. And he can achieve higher status still, in the eyes of his colleagues if not of the academic community at large, by abandoning the study of man altogether, and joining the packed ranks of the methodologists. He then criticizes ineptitudes in experiments conducted by others. He speculates, like the country divine, on how good work might be done, but never risks the doing for himself.

Among those psychologists who work with children, the situation is complicated further by the spectre of the schoolteacher. To work in schools is to risk being confused by your colleagues with the person who teaches in one. It can scarcely be coincidental that psychologists who have measured children’s intelligence have armoured themselves to a greater extent than any other with the protective magic of number. Nor can it be coincidental that in the course of half a century, the mental testing movement has told us little about children that we did not already know, but has made major contributions in the field of statistics. On the Continent, such rituals take a different outward form, but their essentials are the same. Piaget, for example, has encased his brilliant studies of problem-solving in small children in a system of logico-mathematical symbolism that few if any of his admirers read, that has no detectable explanatory point, and that only logicians can disentangle.

As Gombrich has implied, science, like art, is born of itself not nature. Psychology is no exception. It is by reading the literature, by listening to gossip over tea in the department, by an intuitive grasp of his supervisor’s prejudices, that the tyro fixes on an experiment to perform. And in psychology, a subject where mastery is weak, this cultural process can be seen with a special clarity. For where discovery in physics, chemistry or molecular biology is cumulative, psychology proceeds more by fits and starts; a series of lunges into the surrounding darkness. It is a subject, or series of subjects, in which one research fashion succeeds another, leaving surprisingly little behind it as a residue of re-usable knowledge. In this respect, even the most experimental forms of psychology resemble much more closely an art form, modern painting for instance, than they do an established science.

In such a situation, prejudices are potent. And they are particularly so, in science as elsewhere, for being implicit. The tough look down on the tender, but unless hard-pressed, deny that they do so. If cornered, they point to the unfortunate fact that, among psychologists, it is the weaker students who specialize in the more humane branches: those with lower seconds, young ladies with an interest in people. It follows, the tough point out with evident regret, that standards are lower in the more humane fields. The argument is a tricky one to combat, especially as it prophecies are self-fulfilling. As teachers and examiners, the tough-minded are in a position to give their own assumptions weight. With minds as open as any can be, they design courses and set papers that favour candidates whose style of intelligence suits them to experimental research. They thus operate a self-perpetuating social system. And being men of good faith and sociological naivety, they are free to deny that they do so. The more tender-minded know that a form of snobbery is being exercised at their expense, yet cannot convince themselves that it is groundless. They feel not merely embarrassed, but embarrassed about feeling embarrassed. And there are few more potent mechanisms for ensuring that a particular type of research is not done; or, if it is done, that it is not done well.



Written by Admin

October 20, 2006 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thanks Rafe, lots of tough thinking ahead!


    October 20, 2006 at 5:35 pm

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