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Paul Meehl on Philosophical Psychology (1989)

July 8, 2013

Fred Hasselman linked in this fantastic series on philosophical psychology – filmed lectures by Paul Meehl. Done, January 1989.

Fred Issued a bit of a challenge for people to go listen (he has it under his “respect your elders” series. After all, the problems psychology has are not new). I like multiple motivators, and went listening as I’m going to gear up teaching Philosophy of Science/theory of science again this fall. It also is relevant for my interest in fixing science. And, I like this stuff anyway. Multiple little nudges, and I’m pushed into this particular strange attractor.

The lectures are about 90 minutes long. I’m on the fourth today (the 8th) after having started yesterday. He is that engaging! (I never understood this no-lecture thing. I like lectures. It’s like being told a story!)

Lecture 1 and 2 is very much history, but fascinating. He is intertwining logical positivism – its rise and fall – along with anecdotes of the people involved, as he was personal friends with lots of them, and is also well aware (as he says) that it is just engaging and informative to also hear about who these peple were. He was such a good psychologist.

But, I wanted to mention a bit about lecture 3, where he talks about the context of discovery and the context of justification. Context of discovery are things like – oh, the dream of the snake that bit the tail that inspired the discovery of the structure of the benzene ring, or the forgotten petri-dish with the penicillin mould. Context of justification is then the scientific explanation (but, as he points out very strongy, these overlap!).

But, he also talks about another piece of context/distortion (you should all go and listen), and that is the fee that the universities take out of grants, which in turn pushes researchers to pursue topics that don’t necessarily interest them, but that will get them grants. It predates this analysis by Paula Stephan (I link in Stephen Hsu’s blog – he has some quotes, and links to the Nature commentary) where she talks about the universities turning into malls, where researchers hire space, and the university gains in reputation to attract students. He talks about the increase in publish or perish, and the corrosive effect that has on science.

He also has an interesting commentary on “best practices” information vs data (as he’s been a practicing clinician) which I think all clinicians should consider. (Even if I’m not a clinician, I get involved in teaching ours, and this is something I hear about a lot).

In 1989. At a time where I had not yet completely formulated my intention to get a PhD, where I just slowly started getting math books to repeat my highshool math so I could do dynamics.

The issues are old. As a lot of us know. Now, how to break the inertia, nudge the research into a more beneficial strange attractor….





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