Notes on theory, evidence, and social science

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between theory and evidence in social science — spurred in part by reading more about David Hume and how various other Enlightenment-era thinkers thought about induction and evidence. I won’t attempt to say anything on this subject myself here, but want to clip together a few interesting things I’ve read on the topic lately:

A Brief History of the Hypothesis – Cell

Guide to critical thinking, research, data and theory: Overview for journalists – Journalist’s Resource

A mini-course on interpreting evidence – ClearerThinking.org

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (I’ve read only a bit)

Finally, this quote from Harvard’s Gary King:

One division within science is theory versus empirics. There are whole bodies of work in academia where, for lack of direct empirical observation, we have to just make assumptions about people. For example, that they pursue their own rational self-interests. Well, a lot of the time they do pursue their own rational self-interest, but a lot of the times they don’t. If you had to make an assumption about people, maybe that’s a good one to start with, but if you have data, you don’t have to. You can go figure out what they’re doing in particular instances.

So, the “End of Theory”? Of course it’s not the end of theory. But the balance between theory and empirics is shifting toward empirics in a big way. That’s always the case in areas where there’s a lot of data. Does that make the scientific method obsolete? No — that’s absurd. Science is about inference, using facts you have to learn about facts you don’t have. So if you have more facts, you don’t have to make as many inferences as you would otherwise.

It’s never going to be the case that there’s no inference, and by definition, it’s never going to be the case that we’re not going to need science. All the data revolution is influencing is how much empirical evidence we have to bring to bear on a subject. Nobody says in astronomy when we get a better telescope that we don’t need theories of how things work out there. We just got some more evidence, that’s great.

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