Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Outsider books

There’s a species of books in which a commonly-held view by established researchers is criticized by someone from outside the profession and supposedly shown to be wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with people who are not scientists writing about science. But two lines of argument in those books aren’t convincing:

  1. The outsider does not have to hold to establish views to advance and has therefore figured out something that people within the profession have missed or aren’t allowed to say.
  2. The respective branch of science is not an experimental science and can therefore not establish causality.

The first is rarely the case. Science isn’t a closed environment where you’re not allowed to speak your mind. Dani Rodrik writes in his “Ten Commandments for Noneconomists”:

[Nine.] If you think all economists think alike, attend one of their seminars.

[Ten.] If you think economists are especially rude to noneconomists, attend of one of their seminars.

And the second argument is misleading. How did we figure out that the Earth orbits the Sun or that smoking causes cancer? Not through experiments. Also, if scientists can’t claim to identify causality, why should the outsider?

  • In the “The Nurture Assumption” (which is else an interesting book), Judith Rich Harris writes (added emphasis):

    [Socialization research] is a science because it uses some of the methods of science, but it is not, by and large, an experimental science. To do an experiment it is necessary to vary one thing and observe the effects on something else. Since socialization researchers do not, as a rule, have any control over the way parents rear their children, they generally cannot do experiments. Instead, they take advantage of existing variations in parental behavior. They let things vary naturally and, by systematically collecting data, try to to find out what things vary together. In other words, they do correlational studies.

  • Nina Teicholz uses both arguments in “The Big Fat Surprise”.

  • Tom Wolfe’s book (which I haven’t read) sounds a lot like that as well:

    Evolution, [Tom Wolfe] argues, isn’t a “scientific hypothesis” because nobody’s seen it happen, there’s no observation that could falsify it, it yields no predictions and it doesn’t “illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science.” Wrong - four times over.

    I like Jerry Coyne’s final take-down:

    Somewhere on his mission to tear down the famous, elevate the neglected outsider and hit the exclamation-point key as often as possible, Wolfe has forgotten how to think.