Monthly Archives: January 2017

No Theory, No Method, No Teacher?

I’m going to write a series of posts vaguely inspired by Van Morrison’s 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. I don’t have any particularly good reason for this, other than a moment of free association I experienced while reading Andrew Gelman’s recent post about Brian Wansink.

In the comments to Andrew’s post, there is a brief discussion about Wansink’s atheoretical approach to behaviorial economics. In this video, Wansink is quite explicit about what he’s doing. He says that instead of extending and testing theories based on past research, he just comes up with “cool” questions that he has “hunches” about and constructs “pilot studies” to find out if there’s anything going on. Andrew comments: “This won’t work too well with noisy data. In the absence of theory, effect sizes will be low, and anything statistically significant is likely to be a huge overestimate of any effect and also likely to be in the wrong direction (that’s type M and type S errors).” In another comment, he elaborates this point with an example from Wansink’s research:

I’m no expert in food science, but let me just take an example: Wansink’s claim … that “if you sit near a window you’re about 80% more likely to order salad.” There has to be some theory underlying this, right? I don’t know what it is, not having read Wansink’s book or watched his video, but whatever it is, I imagine one could take measurements on some of the intermediate steps. You develop theories, make testable predictions, the usual story. I’d think if that is someone’s full-time job and he’s supposed to be a world authority on the topic, that he can do this. If there’s really no theory at all—zero—then my guess is that the whole thing is a waste of time, that he’s just chasing noise and learning nothing at all.

When Van Morrison rejects guru, method and teacher, he’s talking about his personal journey towards enlightenment. Some version of that rejection is part of many wisdom traditions because spiritual enlightenment, whatever it is, is supposed to be a liberation of the self, which must ultimately happen by yourself alone. I get that. But it doesn’t play very well in academic circles because academic “enlightenment” is a much more social sort of experience.

In my adaptation of Morrison’s slogan, I’ve only replaced the “guru” with “theory”. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s observation that sometimes a system of logical notation can bring insights as good as a live teacher. (Frege, who invented a “conceptual notation”, has had his writing described by one commentator as “an epiphany of philosophy itself”.) But it’s actually that rejection of teachers that should tell us what’s wrong here. After all, what is a school (an academy) without teachers and their students?

Academic knowledge is the sort of thing we can learn from others. That’s what makes an education something quite different than a spiritual journey. We’re not just supposed to find the answers within ourselves (though we may find many of them there while attending a university); we’re supposed to be brought up to speed about what the culture already knows.

A “scientific” discovery, likewise, is one we can teach to others, it is “contribution” to others, especially other researchers. That’s why theory is so important. It’s what you are contributing a particular result to. In science, you can’t really claim to answer “important questions” instead of extending or testing a theory. It’s the theory that gives the question its importance.

For Wansink to present an “experimental” approach to economic behavior with no theory is as odd as if he proposed to conduct his experiments with no method. And, in an academic context, that, in turn, is as odd as signing students up for classes and then refusing to be their teacher. There is some wisdom in all such rejections of history and authority. But it is neither scholarship nor science.

The Problem of Writing

I’m doing a seminar later today, and I just wanted to reflect a little on my opening remarks. The purpose of my Writing Process Reengineering seminar is to help writers think about their process as a manageable one. I want them to see “the problem of writing” as one that can be solved, almost entirely separate from “the problem of knowing”, i.e., their substantive research problem. Obviously, it won’t be satisfying for them to be able to write if they’re not also knowledgeable, but the truth is that everyone knows something. So I can always help you train your writing, even if you don’t think you know enough in some absolute sense.

Most importantly, the problem of writing is not solved once and for all. It arises every time you learn something new, every time you discover something that might make a contribution to your field. How do I write this down? How do I tell my peers about this? That’s the question. That means that I’m not actually helping you solve the problem of writing, I’m helping you to become better at solving it in particular cases as they arise. I’m showing you how to approach the problem … as an ongoing and practical one. That’s important to keep in mind. A healthy prose style is not an automatic process that produces representations of what you know as you come to know it. It’s a capacity you have. A problem-solving capacity. The problem is communicating your results to others for the purpose of discussing them.

A Fact is a Propositional State

My title is the somewhat overconfident answer to the question I posed in a previous post. If you are reading this on an electronic device, it is a fact that the device is turned on. It is also a fact that this post is being displayed on your screen. You can, presumably, turn off just the screen. The first fact (that your device is on) will remain the case while second (that it is displaying this post) will cease to be. Or you can simply close the browser. What’s interesting here is that you will now again have destroyed the fact that the post is being displayed, but you will have done it by a different means. The screen is still on, after all.

I know this sort of philosophizing can seem tedious. I was very careful not to say that the fact is “true” or “false”. Truth is not a virtue of facts–they simply are or are not, they “obtain”, we sometimes say, or don’t–while statements of fact may be true or false. But statements may also be many other things, like long or short, articulate or muddled, obnoxious or boring, controversial or conventional. Their truth value is only one of their many features. My point is that propositions are the sorts of things that are only true or false. Or rather, they have something else too: a meaning. And what they “mean” is the very state of things that makes them (or would make them) true.

A proposition is true or false of a fact.  A fact is the truth or falsity of a proposition. That’s the sense which I want to claim that facts, like beliefs about them, are “propositional states”. They are states of affairs with “propositional content”. The belief and the fact (and the approximating statement of that fact, for that matter) have the proposition common. If I believe something and tell you, and if you believe me, then there are two beliefs, a statement (made by me to you) and a fact, but only one proposition, which is the common logical structure of them all.

A prose paragraph is usually a statement of fact along with reasons to believe it. It can be very useful to you as a writer to clarify the propositional content for yourself. Isolate it from the rhetorical flourish, if you will. Imagine the fact and it’s simplest statement. If I’m right about this, what you will now have in mind is the proposition. And it belongs as much to the fact as to the statement and the belief.

Bullet Time

“The human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow.” (Cyril Connolly)

“Bullet time is a stylistic way of showing that you’re in a constructed reality, and that time and space are not the same as us today living our lives.” (John Gaeta)

I’ve written about the relevance of this effect to the experience of writing here. In an important sense, the writer is working in a constructed reality, outside of space and time.

Is a Fact a Propositional State?

In philosophy, we talk of “propositional attitudes”, like beliefs and desires, which have “content” that can be expressed as a proposition, which in turn may be true or false. Propositions are simply the sorts of thing that can be true or false. Beliefs are the paradigm case of propositional attitudes, because when we believe something we hold it to be true. Belief arguably treats propositions essentially as propositions. It holds them “as such”. But desires also have propositional content. If I desire to go on vacation, I’m hoping (another propositional attitude) that the proposition “I am on vacation” will soon be true. That is, the desire has content that can be expressed as a statement that is currently false and the relevant attitude is something like dissatisfaction with that state of affairs.

We normally say that a proposition is made true, if it is, by a “fact”. This is sometimes called “the correspondence theory” of truth, according to which propositions are true “to the facts”, i.e., in so far as they correspond with the facts, or what are sometimes also called “states of affairs”. Now, propositional attitudes are also states of affairs–they are “mental” states. If I believe something, it is a fact that I believe it. A great deal of social research involves establishing what people believe, or desire, or hope, or fear.

This would seem to suggest that a propositional attitude actually has two components. (1) a propositional state and (2) the relevant attitude (of holding it to be true, for example, or hoping it will soon become true). The question that I’m raising in the title of this post is whether there is also a physical “state of affairs”, an arrangement in the world, that can rightly be considered “propositional”. There is the fact out there in the world: is it “articulate” like a proposition? Is it a propositional state?

When I started this post I thought I knew the answer, and that the answer is yes. Having stated the question more clearly, however, I’m not as sure. The great thing about blogging in a situation like this is that I can just put it out there and see how that feels. I will return to the question soon.