Thursday, 29 May 2014

Richard Tol says something incredible

To whit, this:
Science is not a set of results. It is a set of methods. 
It's difficult to know whether he really believes this but since he said it, let's take it at face value.

No, let's rewrite it.  Which of these make sense?

Football is not about the goals.  It is about passing the ball.
Golf is not about the number of shots.  It's about the quality of your swing.
Economics is not about the results. It is about the methods. 
The answer is, none of them make sense, and for good reason.  The results of sports and academic pursuits are what matters most.  How those results are achieved needs to be fair, within the rules.

I don't know so much about the dismal science but if Tol really believes that results in science do not matter then he is a dismal scientist.  Of course results matter. So long as the method is good, within the limitations of that method, the results must matter. What else is the point of a scientific (or anything else) investigation?

Let's hypothesise, for one moment.  Richard Tol's house is burgled. The police arrive and carry out a thorough investigation.  The case goes to court.  The forensic evidence is delivered by explaining the methods used to collect it. Everyone is court is waiting for the results of the investigation but the officer in the witness box states:
Science is not a set of results. It is a set of methods. 
I'm sure Tol would see it differently.

So why say it?  Perhaps he does think science is not a set of results.  Perhaps it was a flippant remark written in a hurry, not thought through.  The recent confirmation of the Higgs boson is an example of where results clearly do matter.  In fact, from Kepler and Gilbert onwards, I can't think of any meaningful, accepted science that hasn't rested on results.  Furthermore, the results are what gets remembered well after the methods have been shunted to a footnote: the charge on an electron, the bending of light by matter, the strength of gravity.

So, sorry, Professor Tol, I think you're wrong.  Now, I know you are keen on defending yourself so feel free to come here and explain what you meant because I cannot see how you can possibly have been correct.


  1. Just a guess, but seems like a misunderstanding. Strictly speaking, I'd say he is correct, though I am certainly no fan of his. Your analogies change the meaning slightly by introducing a new word--it's not what science is "about," but, hmm, what it consists of. Does that help? If not, I can blab a bit further.

    1. What I should have said but omitted is science is the sum of the results and the methods. Without the two, science is nothing. Results alone do not make science and method alone is pointless.

  2. OK, fair enough, I agree that the purpose of the methods is to ascertain a result. Pretty fine distinctions here, but hairsplitting is Tol's specialty.

    1. More of Tol's useless engagement over Cook et al. People who feel obliged to conduct commentary and maintain a high level of involvement with a public topic often stretch themselves thin, and Tol is certainly no exception.

      His disagreement with Cook et al has gone nowhere for a long time, he has added no insights, and is still, going by the evidence of your link, reduced to blithely asserting Cook has failed. It's childish. Cook et al is what it is, a transparently conducted literature search with simple aims. Tol does not like the results, too bad. It doesn't matter to reality, and Tol's intransigence is no longer interesting.