What is science? And who owns it?

Be prepared. This might be a little bit of a rant.

Last night, an old colleague (and dare I say, mentor) of mine went on a long series of posts on my Facebook page. What started as a mild criticism of a turn of phrase turned into an all out war against me, a few authors, and some others. One of my favorite parts of the (well, conversation isn’t the right word) was when he said, “(name redacted) doesn’t know his ass from and acorn.” That’s a difficult discrimination issue, indeed.

But what got me was his assertion that Special Educators, with a tacit assumption of clinicians in general, are not scientists. According to him, scientists make discoveries, using the scientific method, that are disseminated in peer reviewed journals. Good scientists don’t waste their time writing books because the academy sneers at them.

Sir, I think Gallileo and DaVinci would disagree with you on many of these points. And so do I.

Let’s begin by defining science, shall we?

According to Dictionary.com, science is:

  • a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws:the mathematical sciences.
  • systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.any of the branches of natural or physical science.
  • systematized knowledge in general.knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.a particular branch of knowledge.

Let’s take a definition from behavior analysis for balance. I happen to have the third edition of Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research by Johnston and Pennypacker on my Kindle. I probably shouldn’t say that too loudly – do they allow people like me to read it? The link is to the fourth edition.

They define science in several chapters, and I’ll try to sum it up as best I can.

  • Science can be defined as what scientists do, which is also part of the natural environment. As such, the scientist’s behaviors are controlled by the stimuli within it. You can never not be part of the experiment. The methods and subject matter is all a matter of contingencies.
  • The scientific method is used to gain more insight into the subject matter. There are some specific conventions that have been shown over the years to be effective, but anyone in education can attest that they have been a matter of debate themselves. Can you run stats on a single subject design?
  • Data, natural patterns and generalizations are generated from both the behavior of scientists and the methods they choose.

In fact, Johnston and Pennypacker are very clear that science is not limited to research, peer reviewed journal articles, and academic accolades. They do concede, however, that the practitioner is limited in their generalization of findings for a number of reasons. These include limitations in the selection of questions and the degree that they can control their environment for extraneous variables.

In the end, though, behavioral science comes down to this fundamental question: what are the contingencies that control behavior?

So, basically, if I’m collecting data, trying to control for extraneous variables, using the scientific method to the level the environment allows, and making decisions based upon those data about the contingencies that control behavior – I’m a scientist. A scientist-practitioner, but a scientist nonetheless.

Oh, here’s a gem: “The key to understanding how science works lies in acknowledging that scientists are behaving organisms. As such, there is no evidence that scientists are generally different from other people. In other words, they are not any smarter or more logical than others who earn advanced degrees (Mahoney, 1976, as cited in Johnston and Pennypacker, 2010. Regrettably, I don’t have the page number since I’m working from a Kindle).” So it might be in your best interest to, I dunno, take it down a few pegs.

Also, I’m having trouble understanding how a person who hasn’t interacted with the people he’s attacking in the flesh for many years can make judgements about our behavior, if the scientist is data- and observation-focused.

As another friend said, painting all practitioners in a corner as the same flies in the face of a functional approach to human behavior. As behavior analysts, what a behavior looks like is secondary to how it operates on the environment. So, do all clinicians practice in the same manner using the same methods? Seems implausible to me. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it, as long as we do it?

Also, attacking people for their successes and insulting them are logical fallacies. Using this post by the UNC Writing Center, oh, there were so many problems with what was said last night:

  • Hasty Generalization – “Special Educators are not scientists.” This seems more like a stereotype than a statement of fact. Where are the data to support that? Granted, Burns and Ysseldyke (2008) reported that professionals supporting students with disabilities often chose interventions with little to no evidence. However, nowhere in the article does it state that there were NO evidence based practices used. And, does a sample from a survey reliably measure practice?
  • Ad hominem and to quoque – in other words, when you don’t have anything else to say, attack the person. Their yacht. Or their ability to discriminate their ass from an acorn.
  • Red Herring – the acorn guy’s stuff was actually tangential to the original argument. Therefore, what he can discriminate, and what he can’t, doesn’t really belong in the conversation.
  • False Dichotomy – being a scientist isn’t necessarily and either/or distinction. One can be a scientist, a consumer of science, or both. To say otherwise is just elitist.

So, Dear Doctor, I shall continue to call myself a scientist. Because of, and in spite of, what you say.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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