03 September 2013

What is Philosophy of Science Good For?

Over the past week or so I've not posted at all. In my day job I teach political theory at the University of Rochester. And last week was the annual convention of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in Chicago. Susan and I went to give a joint paper and August came along for the fun - quite literally. Susan took him to the zoo and the natural history museum, he and I went swimming every day, and during our paper presentation he sat in the back of the room guffawing at Epic which he was watching on my laptop. On Saturday and Sunday I flew cross country and back so that he could be back in Oregon for the start of school today. Today was the first day of classes for me too. Hence the dearth of posts.

In any case, among the things I'm preoccupied with - I'm working on a book on the topic - is how social scientists use models. So I found this post at the Opinionater blog by philosophers Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain entertaining. Their argument is pretty thoroughly wrongheaded. It might be persuasive if, like them, we accept predictive success as the most important or even sole criterion for assessing the performance and progress of a science. Paul Krugman insists that they misjudge economists' success on that dimension and so are wrong on their own grounds. I think that is the wrong response, in part because it is unclear whether the work to which he refers actually predicts in the way Rosenberg and Curtain demand. There is good reason to challenge the overriding priority they ascribe to empirical performance. Other philosophers of science - Larry Laudan and Phillip Kitcher, for instance - insist that if our criteria of scientific performance and progress are properly attuned to scientific practice, they must be multidimensional in the sense of countenancing conceptual and technical as well as empirical progress.That seems especially crucial in talking about political economy. After all, there are many extremely influential models in political economy that make no predictions at all. And there are prominent political economists who doubt that the models they construct can be predictive in the first place. Rosenberg and Curtain have nothing to say about such work other than to banish it from the domain they proclaim scientific. In trying to legislate as they do, they make us wonder what philosophy might be good for.

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