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.

One thought on “No Theory, No Method, No Teacher?

  1. I have known Brian Wansink for a couple of decades. I have watched him work. He doesn’t see the world he studies in the common way of academic researchers. There are two results. First he is regarded with suspicion, disdain, or bewilderment by colleagues who approach consumer behavior research in a standard “large n” research design, often using secondary data. (This is similar to the treatment in the commentary thread in Andrew’s blog.) The second thing is that Brian draws insights from a massive pile of small experiments that are not circumscribed by some received theory. This makes him a captivating speaker on the lecture circuit and in the classroom.

    I see his pattern of work as similar to the way Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky built the massive pile of results of small experiments on judgment, decision framing, and choice. (There is a delightful passage in the very recent book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project, where Kahneman and Tversky “took the research on the road” because they had exhausted the population of Tel Aviv.) As much a Kahneman would have liked a theoretical base for what he observed in the world, it didn’t exist — especially at the core of psychology.

    So, can we accommodate atheoretical research? Will we claim it is not a valid method? And in the end, can we learn from the oddball researchers who pursue ideas by posing and solving little puzzles? Maybe in the “right” kind of learning environment; one not bound by rigid hypothetico-deductive models of inquiry.

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