Normative science accomplishes positivism’s goals better than positivism.

I’ve always been a supporter for science for it’s own sake, or knowledge. The modern day alternative (barring pseudoscience of course) is positivism which, perhaps based on a capitalistic society, is rather pervasive. To avoid confusion I’ll explain briefly what I mean by normative and positivistic sciences; I’ve come across both meaning different things depending on the source so if even I use the jargon “normative” and “positivist” please appropriate your own word use as to these two separate concepts. Normative science is science to seek knowledge, and is unconcerned with finding solutions. It states that when we use science, we make actual observations of reality. Now that is a fairly bold claim, but has yet to be disproved. There are definitely times where there are better explanations, and different ways of observing the same phenomena, but the overarching aim of science is to acquire knowledge of reality.

Positivism behaves rather differently. It is unconcerned with the uncovering of reality’s laws. Rather, it sees science as a way to discover conclusions to statements. The statements themselves and their conclusions have no reality-confirming power, rather they are a means to an end. Positivism is about making predictive conclusions that can then be applied to make results. Perhaps you can see why there is a whiff of positivism practically everywhere in science, given that we live in a predominantly capitalist society.

So normative science may lead to interesting but a delve of wholly “useless” piles of information. Positivism will separate the wheat from the chaff and focus, like a laser beam, into useful and applicable solutions for current day problems. Reality is superbly vast and complicated; human requirements are surely much less. Positivism wins out.

Or does it? There are a few problems when we put too much focus on what we think is meaningful investigation. Firstly, I doubt that the purity of scientific endeavour is untainted when we try and get results from scientific investigations. It’s a foible of the human condition that we will do anything to ensure results even when they are not there. Imagine you are the head of some biomolecular research that has had millions of dollars poured into it, but despite your best, most thorough efforts (perhaps the best and most thorough in the world) you have still “failed” because you have not found anything significant. It’s not because you are incompetent; it is because there is literally nothing “significant” to discover. In a positivistic framework, you’d probably be sued and fired. That of course, doesn’t happen, but there is a whiff of positivism when it comes to article publication- very rare is the “non significant” discovery allowed into a scientific journal. This is dangerous as other individuals may make the same mistakes- is it not the job of science and culture to build upon our prior endeavours? This sort of significance-mining can lead to inappropriate scientific investigation, including doctored results, if the individual is desperate enough. Without the ideals of pure scientific investigation, could anyone really be blamed for such acts?

The much more important point to consider is that we simply do not know if our research is meaningful, and we certainly do not know from where meaningful research arises. Neil deGrasse Tyson points this out succintly:

So, not only does normative science give us reality-based information, it does positivism’s job better than positivism can. This has been realized at least in theory by the vast majority of scientists, but as I have alluded to, positivism lingers on in a watered down form. It is somewhat unfeasible to give equal funding to all science, but the attempt will produce greater results than focusing on a handful of disciplines.

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~ by freeze43 on August 21, 2011.

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