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Sciences and nons(ci)ences

I have spent too much time on Twitter*.

Nevertheless, one of the things I did notice is how many of the economic tweets are arguments about statistics. One in particular, pointed at by @FelixSalmon and @JustinWolfers, is an article that stresses:

… statistics is a rhetorical practice. ┬áThe goal is not just to convey information but rather to change minds.

The author of that extract, Jeff Ely, is a professor of Economics at Northwestern. I wonder whether professors of statistics would agree with his definition. In any event, it made me think about whether statistics is a science, or, indeed, what is a science**?

In my categorical scheme, science is about finding the rules or relations the world satisfies. I suppose I am assuming the existence of an objective world.

Therefore:

  • I wouldn’t call mathematics a science. I’d call it a tool or a method. Gauss called it “the Queen of the Sciences”, a reference to the role of the queen in chess, I think.
  • I’d call physics, chemistry and biology, etc., the natural sciences, in accord with tradition.
  • I’d call economics and politics the moral disciplines because there will hardly ever/never be an objectively true answer to a question.
  • And I’d call statistics the heuristics of extrapolating data. I don’t mean that pejoratively.

In that case, when an individual ignores pure statistical evidence that comes from a collection of data, that is extrapolation heuristics, I don’t think you can fairly say they’re ignoring “science”.

I foresee someone pointing out that all real science is based on the statistical analysis of data too. That’s true. But it’s only science that’s being ignored if there’s a theory or model or explanation underlying it too, some deductive scheme based on structural principles.

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* I wonder if anyone has calculated the amount of GDP lost to the nation by people, not in the news business and still holding jobs, who obsessively look at tweets, their own, responses to their own, and others.

** A colleague of mine once told me that his father said that any field that attempts to make the word science part of its name (nutrition science, social science, domestic science) cannot be a science. When I was in graduate school, and my friends and I went off to work in the evening or on the weekend,we said we’re going to “do some physics”. The biologists I knew, under similar circumstances, said they were going to “do some science”. And they were, but I thought it was a strange and glamorous usage.

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