More on Scientific Progressivism

I just wanted to add a few thoughts to my post yesterday.  Readers may be wondering what is wrong with using science to identify the best educational practices and then implementing those best practices.  If they are best, why wouldn’t we want to do them?

Let me answer by analogy.  We could use science to identify where we could get the highest return on capital.  If science can tell us where the highest returns can be found, why would we want to let markets allocate capital and potentially make a lot of mistakes?  Government could just use science and avoid all of those errors by making sure capital went to where it could best be used.

Of course, we tried this approach in the Soviet Union and it failed miserably.  The primary problem is that science is always uncertain and susceptible to corruption.  We can run models to measure returns on capital, but we have uncertainty about the models and we have uncertainty about the future.  Markets provide a reality test to scientific models by allowing us to choose among competing models and experience the consequences of choosing wisely or not.  Science can advise us, but only choice, freedom, and experience permit us to benefit from what science has to offer.

And even more dangerous is that in the absence of choice and competition among scientific models, authorities will allow their own interests or preferences to distort what they claim science has to say.  For an excellent example of this, check out the story of Lysenko and Soviet research on genetics.  For decades Soviet science was compelled to believe that environmental influences could be inherited.

Science facilitates progress through the crucible of market tests.  Science without markets facilitates stronger authoritarianism.

14 Responses to More on Scientific Progressivism

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sissy Willis and davidthomsonone. davidthomsonone said: More on Scientific Progressivism: […]

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    Well stated, Jay. There is no substitute for the organic marketplace of ideas in conflict — the free ecosystem that refines the very questions we ask. After all, science can only advise on the questions being posed, but the key to perpetual progress is being challenged enough, smart enough, and free enough to pose new ones.

    A stubborn blind spot we face in this debate stems, I believe, from people misunderstanding that science in its reduced form boils down to this little exercise we call “hypothesis testing,” which the lay public would correctly translate into mere “testing questions.” Of course, this linguistic reduction exposes the fundamental limitation again: How do you know when you’re asking the right questions to begin with? Well, you can’t. Only real life itself gets to sort that out, and the more free and decentralized, the faster new questions can arise.

    And no, there’s not supposed to be a Shangri-La at which we all rest when we arrive. Five thousand years from now, the bar will still be rising with new competing pedagogies, technologies, ideas, etc., but it will advance much more slowly if only a handful of people in the room are anointed to ask the questions.

  3. Are you telling me the 500 million dollar U.S. government funded NICHD Research study is suspicious???

    Having utilized their findings in developing my program I have found it of the highest integrity and effectiveness.
    Education has to stop being an opinion based specialty and defer to some research-give me a break.
    I think that study is a good place too start!
    I feel thesis study for the PHD process is myopic but a study of the scale of the NICHD with grants going out to a multitude of researchers asking the question-“How do children learn to read?” is one I will defer to more so that the Goodman and Dewey rhetoric.

    • Rufus Levin says:

      “Words have meaning.”

      “Jobs” are not homogenous. Just saying we need to create jobs is a foolish statement. Unless the unemployed find employers who NEED and WANT their JOB SKILLS, located WHERE these unemployed LIVE…then JOBS have no value if they do not fit. This is also true that JOBS are different all over the USA…not the same….so to count Jobs Lost vs Jobs Gained is a hopeless ruse to confuse public opinion.

      Same is with EDUCATION. Kids are not homogenous. So HOW KIDS LEARN is not a simple solution. Girls learn differently from Boys, at different ages, and with different measurements and encouragement and classroom presentation methocs. Some kids learn visually, others audibly, some kids are engaged, some kids are bored, some kids are attention hindered by chemistry of their body or hormones.

      Some cultures learn diffently from cultures socialized and with different community or family engagements. So trying to make a one metric fits all is a waste of time, money, and is mostly an academic mental masturbation with no serious importance in determining how to educate “kids.”

      • I am just talking about teaching children to read and spell-to make them literate.With reading fluency and background knowledge vocabulary and comprehension grow.

        To deal with the different learning styles in a classrooms,have the children see,hear say and feel the instruction-95% of the kids will learn.

        Read the research-I did-
        I believe in research-seen it work where other things are opinion based and fail!

  4. Hi Jo-Anne,

    I’m not familiar with the research you mention, but I think you are missing my point. My argument is that no matter how good the science, it cannot tell us about what works for each child if the effectiveness of different techniques is highly varied (which it usually is in education).

    We should still be guided by science but we should not be fooled into thinking that there is one right way for all children that science will uncover and the government can enforce.

    • Rufus Levin says:

      If you will include psychology, anthropology, linguistics, religion, political science of nationalities, and in-depth cultural study in the realm of “science”, and not just rely on PURE scientific method to provide absolute measurement rules, I will agree that science is a good tool, but merely like statistics, a starting place to evaluate individuals against a PERCEIVED NORM expectation based upon scientific methods.

      • Rufus,go to early instruction classrooms-watch the damage-by grade 2- you will see weak reading,,more like guessing, poor handwriting(proven to assist reading) and creative spelling…
        Very little instruction…

        People lost-how do we teach it and children,how do we read with ease…frustration,fidgeting,etc…

        We can`t afford to keep this up.

  5. […] Greene has been blogging about the proper role of science in education policy, and his thoughts (continued here) are well worth reading. In particular, he warns that trying to scientifically find “the […]

  6. Rufus Levin says:

    Science is great for some things…But like Economics…it often is theory and not practice.

    Just let quality control assurance and testing happen OUTSIDE of the educational institutions. Private schools constantly evaluate their methods and successes…but don’t PUBLISH their findings. They measure their success by the reputation and quality of colleges their graduates enter and graduate from. Not only so that they get Alums able to donate to their future, but so they can attract good paying parents to put their kids into private schooling.

    There is NO COMPETITION for Public Schools…so science means nothing in unobjective measurements.

  7. Rufus Levin says:

    Public schools, much like Social Security retirement…were NEVER intended to be a one-size fits all government response to a problem.

    Public schools were instituted to create a literate citizen base so that there would be a skilled labor force able to move the national economy forward. They also were faced at the end of the Civil War with a massive population of illiterate ex-slaves to “educate” so they could be FREE and make a living on their own…and also to keep them from FLOODING the market with young kids trying to work without being able to read…but willing to be exploited.

    Also, the defeat of the Indian Tribes in the Westward migration meant another HUGE group of illiterate and non-US culture kids and adults to be assimilated…all of this was set up to be MILITARY style, then assembly line style production of “education and socialization” in one fell swoop.

    Remember that the GI BILL that brought so many young men into college and trade schools at govenment expense after WWII was not about education, so much as to allow the economy to transition from a scarce labor force with a lot of women, into a receptical for the returning thousands of service men…keeping them in school kept them from becoming massively unemployed, and then let the women come home, raise kids, and buy buy buy consumer goods manufactured by former munitions plants, and hiring the newly educated men from war service.

    Today’s PUBLIC SCHOOLS do NOT serve any of these needs, and with forced integration of all races and capacities for learning in Public School, the instition of education is unable to provide special and direct attention to the needs of the non-english speaking and illiterates immigrating from the south and flooding the public school systems.

    Science does not solve socialogic, cultural, and linguistic issues in teaching….just as assembly line “education” does not create a quality product at the individual humanistic level….The schools are trying to push a string.

    • Phone Reid Lyon-

      They aren`t trying to push a string-
      All you are doing is justifying the results instead of pushing for improvement.

      “Bigotry of low expectations”George Bush.

  8. Brian Hurley says:


    I just discovered your writings! Thanks so much for a smart blog that actually analyzes the research rather than spewing sound bytes.

    I have a comment on your series here and I am not sure this is the best place to post it, but have you considered Action Research as a way science can improve academic results? AR is really an excellent tool for teachers and administrators to improve practice using the scientific method while delivering results specific to a school’s community, classroom, and student.

    Cheers and thanks!


    • Hi Brian. I’m not familiar with Action Research. My inclination is to stick to rigorously designed research, liked random assignment, but just be humble about how much you don’t know and not try to centrally plan the world based on it.

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