applying popper to social realities by tyrrell burgess

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An article by a contributor to the Philosophy of Social Institutions at Northeast London Polytechnic.



    Practical Solutions toTYRRELL BURGESS* Practical Problems

    AMONG THE MOST OBVIOUS of intellectual developments in the last fewdecades has been the expansion of the social sciences. The numberof departments of economics, sociology, social and public administrationhave multipled in institutions of higher education. The number of stu-dents in degree courses in these fields has grown astonishingly. At the sametime governments and other public authorities, international agencies, andeven commercial enterprises, have taken to commissioning quantities ofsocial science research. The results of all this activity have been disappoint-ing. Students have been disillusioned by the courses, governments and otheragencies by the return on expenditure. The social sciences, which seemto ofTer the possibility of solutions to intractable social problems, appearinstead to be remote, academic, and inconsequential.

    There are innumerable examples of the social sciences failure. Let us beginwith the desire to improve the outcomes of education. Many children donot learn to read at school and it is widely recognized that individual happi-ness and social peace may require a remedy for this deficiency. Unhappilythe instinct of most social scientists is to fmd out yet more about the chil-dren, their social circumstances, family background, standard of accom-modation, and so on. We thus know innumerable facts with which theinability to read can be said to be associated. There is an industry devotedto this sort of investigation: social class, family size, home circumstances,race, and much else are included in what I may be forgiven for callingmultiple digression analyses-all in order to extend what we know about

    Tyrrell Burgess is Reader in the Philosophy of Social Institutions at Northeast LondonPolytechnic (London, England).


  • 300 Et cetera FALL 1985

    children who cannot read. Very little of this is concerned with the questionof how children are to learn to read. The knowledge from these investi-gations may or may not help: if it does, it will be a lucky chance. Theseinvestigations are not specially designed to ofFer practical help.

    I would suggest that the way to solve the practical problem of teachingchildren to read, whatever their circumstances, is to try a number of readingmethods until we fmd one that works. The kind of knowledge that is re-quired for this is quite different from the kind of knowledge which is soughtby those who use the problem as an occasion for research. The usual out-come ofthe kind of investigation that I have just described is the assertionby sociologists that improvement in reading is impossible until all the otherassociated factors are mitigated-that we cannot change anything unlesswe change everything.

    Here is an example taken from David Donnison, then Director of theCentre for Environmental Studies, introducing the longitudinal study ofchild development undertaken by the National Children's Bureau. (1) Pro-fessor Donnison writes:

    Living conditions for families with young children probably vary moregreatly-inequalities are sharper-than for any other type of household. Manychildren live in the newest and leafiest suburbs within easy reach of well paidjobs in expanding industries, new schools and shops, extensive parks, andall the advantages of urban and rural life. But many others live in overcrowdedquarters where people are constantly on the move, social organisation is weak,unemployment is rife, schools are old and under-staffed, and there is no openspace or legitimate playground.

    Such patterns are the outcome of a long history of economic and socialdevelopment, reinforced or modified by the policies followed by central andlocal authorities for family allowances, employment, housing, transport, andland uses. Too often they are re-emphasised rather than corrected by thedeployment of educational resources. There is no time to be lost in settingabout the task of changing them.

    Professor Donnison concludes:How much do children learn? How far behind the others do the weaker

    performers fall? . . . What can we do to improve the situation?The patterns glimpsed in the National Child Development Study are so

    deeply embedded in this country's economic and social structure that theycannot be greatly changed by anything short of equally far-reaching changesin that structure.

    Professor Donnison is explicit that the performance ofthe weaker learnerscannot be greatly changed unless we change the country's economic andsocial structure. Professor Donnison is a well-meaning man, but his mistakenview of social science leads him to write absurdities and greatly demoralizesthose who might help children to learn.


    To take a further example, I have been present at a meeting to discussthe improvement in the attractiveness of a school to local parents, to whichthe education officer's contribution was, "The school is unattractive becausethe pupils are mostly black and the buildings are old, and we cannot doanything about either of these." The knowledge here had all the fmalityof a solution when it should have been part of the formulation of a realproblem for which a solution was to be sought. Explanation has becomea substitute for action.

    Another set of misunderstandings which bedevil the contribution of thesocial sciences is that which surroimds quantitative work. A common mistakeis to confuse statistical significance with significance. A British exampleof this which has had far-reaching consequences is the formula for dis-tributing central government support to local authorities. Part of this hasbeen called a "needs" element, arrived at by running a multiple regressionanalysis on a number of factors held to represent need and weighting thedistribution according to the relative statistical significance of the factors.The object of this is to produce a satisfactory distribution based upon "ob-jective" criteria. Yet the consequence is to produce a distribution whichvaries unacceptably from year to year (calling for additional modifying for-mulae) and which bears little relation to the actual needs of any individuallocal authority. (2)

    Finally, yet another ground for confusion derives from the uneasinesswith which the social sciences accommodate philosophical questions, inparticular questions of value. The place of value judgments is a matterfor debate in both sociology and economics. It takes the form, in economics,of a discussion about positive and normative statements. As Harry Johnsonput it, positive economics is concerned with how the economy works andnonnative with how it should be made to work to maximize social welfare. (3)In his widely used undergraduate textbook, Lipsey (4) argues that argumentsabout positive statements can be settled by an appeal to the facts whereasnormative statements depend upon value judgments and disagreementsabout them cannot be settled in this way. By way of example he suggeststhat the questions "What government policies will reduce unemployment?"and "What policies will prevent inflation?" are positive ones; whereas thequestion "Ought we to be more concerned about employment than aboutinflation?" is a normative one. Lipsey immediately recognizes that thedistinction may break down, and in a half-page footnote he suggests hownormative statements may depend upon or lead to positive ones-for exam-ple, "Unemployment is worse than inflation because the (measurable) ef-fects of unemployment on human beings are judged by the majority ofadult citizens to be . . . more serious than the (measurable) effects of infla-tion." This has now become such a mixture of positive and normativestatements as to be merely confusing.

    There can be many other examples of ways in which the developing social

  • 302 Et cetera FALL 1985

    sciences bewilder and mislead professionals and public alike. I do not believe,however, that this is inevitable. The bewilderment stems from mistakentheory and practice, and both can be corrected.

    IIThe best hope of corrertion lies through developing the work of Karl Popper.His epistemology, developed initially in relation to the physical sciences, (5)is equally promising in the social sciences. (6) In particular his advocacyof "piecemeal social engineering," his plea to "minimize misery," and hisunderstanding of the importance of institutions together offer a basis forthe harnessing of social science for social improvement. Unfortunately theseinsights have been largely neglected. This is partly because his ideas arescattered throughout what is now a very large volume of work.

    Popper's most convenient short account of his view of the social sciencesis set out in a relatively recent symposium, (7) summarized as an appendixto the present paper (Popper's "twenty-seven theses" on the logic of thesocial sciences).

    Popper's main thesis is one which he summarizes elsewhere in the schemaPi^TT->EE->P2: scientific discussions start with a problem (Pi) towhich we offer a tentative solution, or theory (TT); this theory is thencriticized to eliminate error (EE); the theory and its critical revision leadto new problems (P2). It seems to me a more fruitful explanation thanothers of how knowledge advances, and in particular it avoids the problemof the logical impossibility of induction. It is important to realize, however,that it is a logical explanation, not a psychological one. It does not implya belief that that is what all individual scientists consciously do. Indeedit accommodates the immense variety of practices of individual scientists,including the random, accidental, and creative insights which are indispens-able to human progress. Such strokes of genius can be readily dealt withand made more fruitful if they are regarded as solutions to proble