16 August 2008

Between the Real and the Theoretical

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:56 am

Statistical analysis is the most important mathematical tool used in psychological research. Mean, standard deviation, correlation coefficient, and so on: these are ways of summarizing empirical data in ways that are more readily amenable to testing hypotheses. If someone were to say that, on average, people raised in wealthy households make more money than those raised in poor or middle-income households, this isn’t a theory; rather, it’s the generalization of a statistical regularity calculated from specific data sets.

It’s possible to propose any number of reasons why a statistical association consistently turns up in the data. Causal relationships can be proposed, and data collection protocols will be designed to evaluate whether, over time, changes in one variable are followed by changes in the other variable. Perhaps other variables account for the statistical association — inherited wealth, social class, social networks, intelligence, quantity/quality of education, parental expectations, self-confidence, goal-orientedness, external locus of control, etc. These intervening variables too can be measured and evaluated statistically to see whether they account for some or all of the observed relationship between the original variables. Still, what you get in the end is a larger and larger matrix consisting of an array of variables interlinked by statistical relationships of varying strengths.

If they think about it, psychological researchers probably regard this Correlational Matrix as occupying a middle ground between the Real world and Theory. Between the Real and the Matrix are the gaps between the thing itself and how the thing is presented to the scientific observer. Ways of formalizing the definitions of things, of assigning specific data elements to them, of collecting the data, of summarizing the data arithmetically, of drawing inferences statistically — each of these moves, crucial to empirical research, interposes something between the Real and how the Real is perceived and conceptualized by human beings. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to specify the size of these gaps between the Real and the empirical. Perhaps the distance traveled is too great, leaving the Correlational Matrix of empirical psychology completely isolated from the Real, a vast and intricate structure of signifiers that’s entirely disconnected from what, with the systematic discipline imposed by scientific method, they’ve been constructed to signify.

On the other hand, the Matrix of variables and statistical associations isn’t Theory either. Theory is an abstract conception of entities and forces, of causes and effects, intended to explain the world as it presents itself to us. Popper taught us that theories can never be directly verified by empirical observation. But they can’t be directly falsified either. In order to enter the empiric fray a Theory must be transformed into a scientifically testable hypothesis, in which the abstract concepts and relationships are framed in material, observable terms. The abstract idea of intelligence must be defined in concrete terms: the score on a self-administered intelligence test, say, or the speed and diffusion of neural activity in response to specific stimuli as registered on some sort of MRI scanning device that hasn’t been invented yet. The theoretical relationships between abstract concepts must also be specified concretely; e.g., the magnitude of the statistical correlation between IQ test results and annual gross pre-tax income as documented in federal tax forms gathered from a systematically sampled representative subset of the population. Theorized causality must also be stated in empirical terms, for example through repeated measures over time subjected to time-series analyses and causal modeling statistics.

The connection between Theory and its empirically-testable concretization can become extremely attenuated. When empirical results don’t support the hypothesis, the researcher is apt to reject the hypothesis not because it has been refuted empirically but because the hypothesis was an inadequate expression of the Theory from which it was derived. So it is that Theory can survive any number of empirically mediated, presumably adverse encounters with the Real. When this sort of thing happens, one begins to wonder whether the Correlational Matrix actually occupies a middle ground between the Real and the Theoretical. Maybe it’s something else altogether: not the midpoint on a line but the third point of a triangle.



  1. It’s hard to get away from the fact that the questions that we ask largely dictate how we generate and analyse data. If we keep asking the same questions and using similar statistical techniques to analyse the results, its reasonable to expect that we will get the same or similar answers. It’s hard to see how3 within this tautology we can derive a third point of view.


    Comment by samlcarr — 22 August 2008 @ 5:06 am

  2. Would you say the same about any language, Sam? I.e., if you keep looking at the world, using words and concepts to describe the world, and stringing grammatically-correct sentences together so that others can understand, you keep ending up with the same sorts of questions and answers. The third point of view would happen if you were to argue that the world of sentences was different from both the world of things and the world of ideas. Structuralists will contend that the words and ideas hang together as signifiers and signifieds, creating an interpersonal medium of thought and language with indeterminate connection to the world in itself. Poststructuralism will go a step farther, disconnecting the signifiers from teh signifieds, such that language is a third category altogether, suspended between the Real and the Idea with no sure connection in either direction.

    Structuralism performs a similar operation on empirical science: the scientific language of variables and correlations, of hypotheses and formulae connect with Theory but not with the Real. Poststructuralism would loose the connection of the Matrix with Theory as well, such that the Matrix is the interpersonal realm assembled by scientists and in which they are immersed.

    I don’t think the connections are broken between world, language, and ideas, or in science between the Real, the Matrix, and the Theory. I think science is a formalized version of what we do all the time: see things, think about them, describe them to others. The same kinds of questions and answers are generated, but they’re still valid. That science can make step-by-step transformations from the Theory to the Real and vice versa, with adjustments made at each step if the transformation loses information along the way, suggests strongly that science, even if it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither the Real nor the Idea, creates a range of intermediate fish-fowl transformations that never lose touch with either one.

    This discussion ties directly back to Meillassoux: do humans ideas and experiences have any direct contact with the Real? The regularities of our experiences or of scientific inquiry: do these things tap into regularities inherent in the world, or have we merely invented them and imposed them on a world that might be entirely different from the way we perceive or conceive of it? I’m saying that I agree with Meillassoux: there is a connection, there are regularities inherent in the universe, independent of the way the world presents itself to us or the way we extract information from the world.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 August 2008 @ 8:34 am

  3. It took me awhile to get past the introduction, but this post by Sinthome provides an excellent philosophical discussion of what I’ve observed here about how scientific psychology works. The translation goes back and forth between Theory and the Real, or between Form and Matter to use Latour’s language. In my post the scientific translation goes like this:

    Matter ————————————————————————— Form
    phenomena —— data —— data analysis —— hypothesis —— theory

    In research the translation iterates back and forth — it “circulates” — meeting in the middle with the analysis, which usually serves as the primary arbiter among working scientists.


    Comment by john doyle — 30 July 2009 @ 4:35 pm

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