The difference between reification and a scientific hypothesis

by James Thorniley

In fact, what Gould has mistaken for “reification” is neither more nor less than the common practice in every science of hypothesizing explanatory models or theories to account for the observed relationships within a given domain. Well-known examples include the heliocentric theory of planetary motion, the Bohr atom, the electromagnetic field, the kinetic theory of gases, gravitation, quarks, Mendelian genes, mass, velocity, and so forth. None of these constructs exists as a palpable entity occupying physical space.

Arthur Jensen

I’ve been thinking more about this idea of reification, that I brought up in my last post. I was originally going to respond to the slightly confusing discussion that got going about it, but I didn’t want to hijack a thread by going on about Spearman’s g again.

So as I understand it one argument against this reification idea, is that everything in science is “reified”. In a way, if you are willing to go to slightly absurd sounding extremes, your concept of there being a coffee cup in front of you may be a reification, because you can’t prove a coffee cup is physically there just from the photons hitting your eyes. Arthur Jensen’s reply to Gould, which I’ve quoted above, sort of makes this point. Spearman said that g may be the result of a “mental energy”, but according to Jensen this is just a scientific hypothesis, and therefore valid. The heliocentric model of the solar system that most of us accept as pretty basic science could also be said to be a reification. Even if the planets are physically there, the model of the planets is no more a physical thing than Spearman’s g.

When I try to think about this problem I have to admit that the whole reification notion is a bit confusing if you try and get philosophical about it. I think essentially it comes down to the fact that actual scientific hypotheses make testable predictions, which after some time (in human history) get investigated and a consistent theory gets worked out. The hypothesis that “Spearman’s g is a result of some kind of energy in your brain” doesn’t, which is what makes it so silly.

Falsifiability and scientific skepticism

This is going to be basic stuff, but I feel like starting the argument from scratch.

Everyone who has read the Wikipedia page on Karl Popper knows that an idea is not scientific if it can’t be falsified. In this sense, the “mental energy” hypothesis falls at the first hurdle. It’s just ridiculous to compare it to the heliocentric model of planetary motion, because the latter could be disproven easily by observing planets moving in such a way that contradicts it.

On top of falsifiability, most scientific hypotheses will make some sort of prediction about unseen events (like the future motion of the blobs of light in the sky), or the consequences of some intervention (like heating up a gas in a fixed volume container). This of course implies falsifiability, because if a theory makes a prediction then obviously if that prediction turns out to be wrong then the theory is falsified. I only mention this because I think predictive power is often assumed to be a better heuristic for a “good” scientific theory – a good Newtonian model of the planets will give a really good prediction of future planetary motion.

I’m not going to go on about this, philosophers have written volumes about this type of stuff (and I’ve read almost none of it). The point is, by the most obvious criteria, the g = mental energy “hypothesis” is not much of a hypothesis in scientific terms. It neither predicts the existence or future behaviour of something that could be observed, nor permits you to show that it doesn’t exist.

I think the falsification / predictive power arguments are probably all you need to explain why the mental energy hypothesis isn’t much good. So why did Gould have to come up with this idea of reification?

Not everything is about f***ing science

I don’t think the reification point is really about science. At least not science in the “hard” sense, it’s about science as in the human process of trying to understand nature. It’s about the process that people went through to convince themselves that they did have evidence that some mental energy representing intelligence exists. Namely, they took g, assumed it was a result of a mental energy, then “proved” that said energy exists by measuring g. There is a strong implication in this logic that therefore g is no longer considered just a product of a mental energy, but actually is a mental energy, otherwise you couldn’t call it proof at all.

Things like the idea of mass or Mendel’s genes imply more general laws, and the theories can agree or disagree with later evidence taken from a different domain. It takes time for an idea to become accepted, so you might need lots of repeated demonstrations of this. Mendel didn’t know anything about DNA, so you might say he reified the idea of genes at the time he came up with them, but the point is that over the course of time discoveries have been made that agree with the idea that there really are materials and processes that operate (at least to a degree) the way that Mendel described. Mendel could have been completely guessing at the time, but it turned out he was more or less backed up by independent evidence.

Ok, I think this is right anyway. To be honest, I’m still a little confused. Just to recap what I think I’m saying:

* This is about equating g with some kind of mental energy, not just measuring g and calling it a thing. Obviously it is a thing, so long as you consider a statistical metric as a kind of “thing”.

* Measuring a statistic is not formulating a scientific theory or hypothesis, nor is proposing a statistical model or analysis, no matter how complex it is. Proposing some completely undefined and mysterious entity to be measured by that statistic (or modeled by your model) is also not a scientific hypothesis. This doesn’t mean that statistics are pointless or useless, just that on their own they don’t count for the entirety of science.

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10 Responses to “The difference between reification and a scientific hypothesis”

  1. “Everyone who has read the Wikipedia page on Karl Popper knows that an idea is not scientific if it can’t be falsified.”

    – except for those of us who disagree with the whole Logical Positivism approach to science… I suppose making that statement probably compels me to write a whole post on why the Bayesian view is fundamentally different from Popper’s approach, but that’s for another time.

    Anyway, this part of your post:

    “…they took g, assumed it was a result of a mental energy, then “proved” that said energy exists by measuring g. There is a strong implication in this logic that therefore g is no longer considered just a product of a mental energy, but actually is a mental energy, otherwise you couldn’t call it proof at all.”

    makes it sound like the problem with Spearman’s g isn’t reification after all, but merely bad logic. It seems analogous to something like “I hypothesise that rainbows are caused by unicorns. I observe rainbows, therefore unicorns exist.” Or A implies B, and B, therefore A – which is an invalid syllogism.

  2. Heh, yes I didn’t mean to imply you have to take the Popper/falsification approach as the end of the argument, certainly I wouldn’t be defending that! Just that it’s one (particularly obvious) criteria to think about.

    I’m also ready to admit that the whole reification idea isn’t necessarily that useful or easy to define, which I think is what the last couple of discussions have shown.

    Yes the syllogism would be bad logic, but I suppose that wouldn’t make “A implies B” a bad hypothesis, just an untested one. Perhaps reification is hypothesising “A implies B” but then switching that (perhaps unconsciously) for “A if and only if B” in the syllogism, making it logical but no longer a test of the hypothesis.

  3. I didn’t realise it but possibly this is related to the almost identical sounding concept of supervenience:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/

  4. Pretty sure the only thing reification and supervenience have in common is the distinction between two levels, one of observables (introspectables, perhaps) and one of real/physical things.

    Supervenice distinguishes between mental and physical, reification between sort of synthetic and analytic – these distinctions could be the same to some people – I haven’t decided, my feeling is that they aren’t, but both cases of a general principle… anyway. The two terms themselves describe quite different things: supervience is the (directed) relationship between the two, reification would be considering a thing on one level to be on the other.

  5. I don’t mean supervenience is reification, I mean the statement “an underlying physical energy is measured by Spearman’s g” sounds a lot like saying “Spearman’s g supervenes on a physical energy”. That’s not to say the two statements are exactly the same.

    I’m not sure about the analytic/synthetic distinction. When I try and think about that I end up back at the logical positivism thing anyway – I mean is a scientific theory analytic or synthetic?

  6. Yeah, there’s some similarity there. Again, as before, both “measures” and “supervenes” are relationships between two ways of describing something. This kind of word is interesting and these examples attempt describe something quite fundamental about the the way we understand the world.

    Pedantic point: “Spearman’s g supervenes on a physical energy” doesn’t make any sense to me. It might make more sense to say “a system of measurements which includes g supervenes upon another system which includes physical energy”. Supervenience is a mapping of relationships between things (with potentially a lot of other stuff thrown in too, it’s more overloaded than reification).

    On the subject of your post, I still don’t think that the problem with g is anything about whether it, or something that it is intended to describe exists. I DO think you are right in thinking that there is something to the idea and that more than likely, reification is social phenomenon.

    I’m thinking it describes the problems caused by confusion and breakdown in communication caused by conflation of various aspects of something complicated to the point where it becomes a singular thing. I wrote that last sentence for my own benefit, sorry. Still meaning to post on this. I think reification is reified.

  7. Reify my ass :D

  8. Reify my ass :D

    Love the site.

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