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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