Ritualistic Science

Much of “science” today is not so much scientific as scientistic. That means that the forms and behaviors of science are used, but the underlying logic is missing. Scientism is very much like the phenomenon of cargo cults, in which Pacific islanders built airports and control towers out of wood in order to bring back the planes that came with World War II. They didn’t realize that air traffic control panels actually did something, so they simply built facsimiles out of wood.

We can see scientism in every aspect of published research today. We see it in papers that think that theory is a set of interconnected hypotheses, rather than as the reason why X leads to Y. We see it in work in which each hypothesis is justified by a collection of independent, even mutually contradictory, reasons why the hypothesis must be true. Instead of the hypotheses being tests of an underlying theory, the hypotheses are the principal claims of the theory, and the justifications for these hypothesis can be a smorgasbord of ideas that embody entirely different theories.

Another aspect of scientism is the belief that there are universal best practices in research that are independent of the research question and the research setting. As a result, there is a great deal of argumentation from authority. E.g., we use this measure because so and so did. We even see it used to justify hypothesis: we expect X to lead to Y because so-and-so said it would.

A tiny example of this ritualistic belief in best practices can be found in network analysis where people argue that certain variables *must* be collected. For example, it has been claimed that in organizational network research, every study must measure the “workflow” network, which indicates who is required to interact with whom because of the nature of their jobs. The idea is that this set of ties can determine many other ties, such as interaction, and so must be taken account of, regardless of the study objectives.

To borrow a page from the scientistic consider the following counter-argument from authority. Ron Burt is a major luminary in the field who has published more than 100 papers on dozens of research projects. How many of these included the workflow network? None. Mark Granovetter is also a major luminary. Does his work take account of the workflow network? No. What about Jim Coleman? Brian Uzzi? Jim Moody? Woody Powell? Anybody?

Graduate students need to be inoculated to generate antibodies against any prescription of this kind. The moment someone says “you can’t do meaningful research unless you include < insert favorite variable >” your scientific spider sense should start tingling and you should become wary. Such rules serve to replace and obviate the need for thought.

5 Responses to “Ritualistic Science”

  1. Chris Says:

    I am a graduate student beginning research in SNA. This concept has certainly crossed my mind before. I want to make sure I don’t fall into such a trap, but I’m not exactly sure how to best prevent it; I worry that I will make some implicit assumption that causes the research to be weakly founded. In much of the literature that I am reading, it doesn’t seem like hypothesis and theories are presented in a fashion similar to traditional mathematics text books, which present them quite clearly. In such a setting, we know what concepts are considered foundational and we can build upon them reliably.

    “Graduate students need to be inoculated to generate antibodies against any prescription of this kind.”

    Please provide some insight as to how to best avoid these situations.

  2. Simon Rodan Says:

    Much the same might be said of control variables in regressions.

  3. Randall Reetz Says:

    “Scientism”! Great splash-in-the-face wakeup call. Thanks. I believe that this is the result of a lack of causal grounding. People in the sciences rarely attempt to tie their work and ideas down to the base causal laws of the universe. Admittedly, this is an arduous task, but it must be undertaken if only periodically, as calibration to the greater reality. It is rare to find scientists who will even talk to this topic. Thankfully, this universe (any universe?) has evolved, meaning it was more simple in the beginning and has become complex only where that complexity could be built on top of the deeper and more powerful forces present in the deepest past. What you end up with is a grand hierarchy of influence which presents itself as causal chain in strata that maps to time. An understanding of this strata and its gradual emergence makes the causal mapping process reasonable. Absent of a regular calibration to deep causal reality, scientists are susceptible to a form of localism in which any measurement can be over emphasized at the whim of personal philosophical need. Scientism is science without causal grounding.


  4. Eva Schiffer Says:

    Thanks Steve,
    I couldn’t agree more. This ritualistic approach to research leads to an atmosphere where you have to be afraid to utter a new thought if you cannot prove that someone else has said it before you – which, obviously would make it an old thought anyway…

  5. Joe Labianca Says:

    While I agree with most of what you’re saying, I disagree with the notion that you could be collecting data in a work organization, want to study the social networks in the organization, and not collect the network of interactions that management is attempting to mandate (e.g., required workflow or required communication). Let’s say you want to understand advice giving and advice receiving in an organizational setting. If you don’t take into account that the vast majority of advice relations are required relationships (as I’ve found in all my research), you can’t adequately theorize about individuals’ motivations. Poor choice of example on an otherwise thoughtful topic.

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