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methodological_points - METHODOLOGICAL POINTS FOR...

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METHODOLOGICAL POINTS FOR BEHAVIORAL SCIENTISTS Francis Mechner The Mechner Foundation Explanatory Fictions in Science Perhaps the most important skill of a scientist is to distinguish clearly between what is known and what is not known and to draw the boundaries accurately. The identification of ignorance is just as important as the identification of knowledge. In fact, one is not possible without the other. That is why explanatory fictions should be avoided. In the behavioral sciences particularly, there is a widespread tendency to invent fictional constructs that purport to explain behavioral phenomena but are really just new names for the phenomena. Such fictional constructs tend to obfuscate the areas of ignorance and to conceal the questions that need to be addressed. But not all constructs are explanatory fictions. A construct's explanatory power must be judged by its correspondence with phenomena that can be measured independently of the phenomena which the construct purports to explain. Scientists tend to invent fictional constructs when faced with an unfilled time gap between an observed antecedent ("causal") event and a correlated subsequent event. Most scientists feel, with justification, that an explanation of any cause- effect relationship demands (a) explication of relevant parameters of the observed correlation, and (b) a detailing of the concatenated events that fill the time gap between the cause and the effect (Smith, 1990; Reichenbach, 1938; Thompson (Lord Kelvin), 1884; Skinner, 1974, pp. 236-237). When unable to do (b), some scientists sometimes succumb to the temptation to fill that time gap with postulated fictional events. That practice is counter- productive when there is no honest expectation that those events will ever be measured independently of the events to be explained, or when there is no separate and independent evidence for the reality of those events. The sin is often further compounded when the scientist tries to disguise the explanatory sterility of the invention by giving it a plausible name (Baum, 1989, p. 169). This practice has been particularly insidious in psychology, in part because the real intervening events that fill the time gaps are so inaccessible. They take place inside the organism, mostly at a microscopic chemical and neurological level (Staddon, 1991). As Skinner stated, "...the temporal gaps between the actions performed upon an organism and the often deferred changes in its behavior ... can be filled only by neuroscience..."
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2 This frustrating state of affairs creates a fertile terrain for pseudo-explanations. A Motivation Unique to Behavioral Science There is an additional reason, a sociological one, why explanatory fictions are more common in the behavioral sciences than in many other fields.
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