Mayo: Meanderings on the Onto-Methodology Conference

mayo blackboard b&w 2Writing a blog like this, a strange and often puzzling exercise[1], does offer a forum for sharing half-baked chicken-scratchings from the back of frayed pages on themes from our Onto-Meth[2] conference from two weeks ago[3]. (The previous post had notes from blogger and attendee, Gandenberger.)

Onto-Meth conference

Onto-Meth conference

Several of the talks reflect a push-back against the idea that the determination of “ontology” in science—e.g., the objects and processes of theories, models and hypotheses—is (or should strive to correspond to?)  “real” objects in the world and/or what is approximately the case about them. Instead, at least some of the speakers wish to liberate ontology to recognize how “merely” pragmatic goals, needs, and desires are not just second-class citizens, but can and do (and should?) determine the categories of reality. Well there are a dozen equivocations here, most of which we did not really discuss at the conference.

In my own half of the Spanos-Mayo (D & P presentation[4]) I granted and even promoted the idea of a methodology that was pragmatic while also objective, so I’m not objecting to that part. The measurement of my weight is a product of “discretionary” judgments (e.g., to weigh in pounds with a scale having a given precision), but it is also a product of how much I really weigh (no getting around it). By understanding the properties of methodological tools and measuring systems, it is possible to “subtract out” the influence of the judgments to get at what is actually the case. At least approximately. But that view is different, it seems to me, from someone like Larry Laudan (at least in his later metamorphosis). Even though he considers his “reticulated” view a fairly hard-nosed spin on the Kuhnian idea of scientific paradigms as invariably containing an ontology (e.g., theories), a methodology, and (what he called) an “axiology” or set of aims (OMA), Laudan seems to think standards are so variable that what counts as evidence is constantly fluctuating (aside from maybe retaining the goal of fitting diverse facts). So I wonder if these pragmatic leanings are more like Laudan or more like me (and my view here, I take it, is essentially that of Peirce). I am perfectly sympathetic to the piecemeal “locavoracity” idea in Ruesche, by the way.

My worry, one of them, is that all kinds of rival entities and processes arise to account for (accord with, predict, and purportedly explain) data and patterns in data, and don’t we need ways to discriminate them? During the open discussion, I mentioned several examples, some of which I can make out all scrunched up in the corners of my coffee-logged program, such as appeals to “cultural theories” of risk and risk perceptions. These theories say appeals to supposedly “real” hazards, e.g, chance of disease, death, catastrophe, and other “objective” risk assessments are wrong.  They say it is not only possible but preferable (truer?) to capture attitudes toward risks, e.g., GM foods, nuclear energy, climate change, breast implants, etc. by means of one or another favorite politico-cultural grid-group categories (e.g., marginal-individualists, passive-egalitarians, hierarchical-border people, fatalists,  etc.). (Your objections to these vague category schemes are often taken as further evidence that you belong in one of the pigeon-holes!) And the other day I heard a behavioral economist declare that he had found the “mechanism” to explain deciding between options in virtually all walks of life using a regression parameter, he called it beta, and guess what? beta = 1/3! He proved it worked statistically too. He might be right, he had a lot of data. Anyway, in my deliberate attempt to trigger discussion at the conference end, I was wondering if some of the speakers and/or attendees (Danks, Woodward, Glymour? Anyone?) had anything to say about cases that some of us might wish to call reification.

I am tempted to view Woodward’s idea of developing heuristics for choosing variables as well-captured by my favorite goal: finding things out via severe tests (be stringent but learn something, promote error correcting improvements, etc.) One can start almost anywhere, and with adequate error probes speed up the goals of finding things out (yet another Peircean theme). Woodward did not say whether the rationale behind his heuristics would be something along these lines. But a rational is needed, or so I would claim. I was trying (in the discussion) to drive home this felt need to articulate a rationale, without which I suspect one overlooks the creative drive toward satisfying these heuristics; I mean why prefer these heuristics? That they may be found satisfied in “successful science” (after the fact) would not necessarily mean they identified forward-looking rules or criteria.

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I might like to add a heuristic such as:

  • find ways to suspect your variables and model even though all the previous heuristic rules are well-satisfied.


  • pursue variables that fail to satisfy your preference for “variables that have unambiguous effects under manipulation”—as of now, given all we know–and discover a novel way to discriminate them anyway.

Or, another way to get at my contrarian inklings, suppose variables have been chosen along the lines of Woodward’s heuristics, and everything seems hunky dory. What impetus is there to find out how the model may be wrong (despite satisfying all those nice expectations)? Retrospectively, these rules might be satisfied, but prospectively, might not they encourage leaning back? (not to allude to the one year anniversary of Facebook’s IPO).

There are some other chicken scratchings I may come back to if I hear from anyone….

[1]But from time to time, someone tells me that found something of value….

[2] Ben Jantzen discovered that abbreviating our conference this way would lead people to methamphetamine websites; so we didn’t use it officially. Thus I use it here.

[3] I’ve been deeply engaged in something I’ll explain later on–not to mention traveling to faraway places–and anyway, for some reason the blog is getting tons and tons of spam. I’m not sure what has changed over at wordpress.

[4] Dog and pony. I may post my pony slides.

Categories: O & M conference, Statistics | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Mayo: Meanderings on the Onto-Methodology Conference

  1. Corey

    “They say it is not only possible but preferable (truer?) to capture attitudes toward risks… by means of one or another favorite politico-cultural grid-group categories… (Your objections to these vague category schemes are often taken as further evidence that you belong in one of the pigeon-holes!)”

    The behavior you describe is a nice example of Surber’s logical rudeness.

    • Corey

      Pardon me — Suber, not Surber.

    • Corey: first, let me say I’m glad to get a comment that is not robo-generated spam, of which I’ve suddenly gotten many.

      I thought it was “a self-sealing fallacy”, or the like. Haven’t looked up this person. thanks.

      • Corey

        Provided the categorization isn’t so vague as to be unfalsifiable, this kind of response isn’t logically fallacious. After all, it’s not *impossible* that these categories “carve reality at its joints,” and if so, one’s objections to the scheme might very well be valid evidence of the objecter’s correct categorization. But such a response doesn’t actually rebut the objection; I’d even say the whole point of it is to squirm out of the task of confronting the objection. The really pernicious thing about it is that it can be an almost entirely unconscious evasion.

        • Corey: yes I concur, but of course it isn’t the vagueness of the category so much as the manner of dealing with any challenges. In a sense the methodology is self-fulfilling: if X believes in this sort of thing, then how can X be expected to do anything but hold the category system that best fits her cultural goals. It suits X’s goals to hold that people within a socio-cultural group interpret data about risk Y in such and such a way, more or less aside from the “objective” risk. for person Y to object is, from X’s vantage point, just an expression of Y’s world view.

          Here I am mile high blogging, let’s see if it works.

  2. Clark

    “find ways to suspect your variables and model even though all the previous heuristic rules are well-satisfied”

    No need. The referees will do it for you.

    • Clark. No they won’t necessarily or even typically, and what if they don’t? The expereconomists (and perhaps other groups) maintain that if you can’t find a specific alternative variable, rival model or explanation (to knock down whatever they’ve offered), then theirs stands. The onus is on the critic. (It is a kind of argument from ignorance.)
      But anyway, we were speaking of heuristics rather than checking.

  3. Nicole Jinn

    I am actually quite skeptical of Woodward’s development of heuristics for choosing variables. As you mention (or ask in the form of a question), why prefer these heuristics (as opposed to other ones)? Also, Spanos pointed out several problems he sees with causal modeling in the very last lecture of ECON 6616. Those problems he mentioned tempt me to think that Woodward’s heuristics may not be suitable for practice, but that’s just my first reaction to Woodward’s idea. Rather, I think that variable selection should rely heavily on context and subject-matter information available to the modeler: that is, there does not seem to be any (universal) heuristic(s) that could be context-independent. Otherwise, the heuristics Woodward develops would have to be context- (or discipline-) dependent, and that seems too ad hoc a route to pursue, at first glance.

    • Nicole: Thanks for your comment. It’s hard to tell how context-dependent his rules are intended to be. Woodward is a philosopher with whom I generally agree, and I take him to be trying to steer between some extremes. Still, I was surprised at his reply (as I recall it) to Godfrey-Smith at the conference about the role of theory in variable selection, on his approach. He seemed to be down-playing that role, but I may have gotten it wrong. Causal modeling means different things to different people; I don’t know how “automatic” it is taken to be these days. But I’m not sure I am getting your concern.

      • Nicole Jinn

        Thank you for your response. I guess the plausibility of Woodward’s heuristics (in practice) would depend on what one takes ‘causal modeling’ to be or mean. However, exactly what extremes is he trying to steer between? (Maybe I am not sufficiently aware of those extremes; rather, I understand causal modeling mostly from the statistics/mathematics side and not as much from the philosophical side.) Another question that arises from reading your reply is: what do you take causal modeling to mean, and how different can it be to different people?

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