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LC0a 4.Would-be Sciences

Would-be Sciences

"[S]cience mainly…advances by leaps; and the impulse for each leap is either some new
observational resource, or some novel way of reasoning about the observations…"

C.S. Peirce
Lessons from the History of Science

Scientists eager to learn through frontier research often seek studies where
some "breakthrough" may push a would-be science across the border
to scholarly acceptability. In contrast with efforts which attempt to define
by principle what is and what is not science or to classify by distinction
varieties of science, Peirce’s description of the quintessence of science
as convergent opinion is our surest guide in evaluating those areas of inquiry
which may be emerging as fields ripe for scientific development.

The study in detail of individuals’ development, the psychology of the particular,
provides a lucid example of a kind of research which today profits from
both those impulses to which Peirce ascribed scientific progress. In respect
of observational resources, recording technologies now make it possible
to freeze samples of behavior in context and in time. Case study corpora
now can be duplicated and shared with others for a more thorough public
examination of detailed records of behavior. From the longer view of an
extended research community, individuals’ case studies can be seen less
as magna opera and more as public and sharable experiments available for
interpretation later, even though not amenable to replication in detail.

The twin foci in contemporary cognitive sciences on explicit representations
of knowledge and functional modeling of behavior represent new ways of thinking
about cognition and its development, new ways, even, of defining what is
to be explained by such research. The embodiment of partially interpreted
studies in hypertext (databases of richly interlinked records with functioning
models as needed) permits their sharing and annotation by other scholars;
various interpretations may now be compared publicly and evaluated with
a flexibility never before possible. Such tools also permit the better management
of extensive and intricate corpora. If we can construct sufficiently complex
and detailed functional models of behavior, we may even have the ambition
someday to develop general theories able to explain how unique incidents
of learning happen for a particular person in a specific context.

It may take a while for opinion to converge to that truth we seek, and any
would-be science may remain so forever. But this fact is merely a practical
difficulty and not an impasse. The guidance provided by Peirce’s views are
some comfort to those of us who spend a life with the would-be sciences,
even though we may need frequently to repeat with Emily Dickinson:

"How small a thing to drop a life
Into the purple well
Too plummetless that it return
Eternity until ."

Publication notes:
Written in 1988.
Subsumed in Chapter 2, Case Study and Computing, Lawler and Carley, Ablex, 1996.

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