Brahe, Kepler, Newton

A good scientific theory starts with regularly observable phenomena; then you get an accurate description of the patterns underlying the phenomena; then ideally you get the lasting rules that drive those patterns.

First you get Babylonian astronomers up through Tycho Brahe, accurately recording what they see in the sky, then you get Kepler describing the structure of the cosmos that would produce those patterns, then Newton explaining the laws behind why that structure would work the way it did. It took a while.

The problem for social scientists is they want it all at once. Rather than worrying about the general, boring, repeated patterns of social phenomena, they want a novel, unusual phenomenon (that’s what the Diedrick Stapel fakery was all about), that thanks to the supposed magic of an RCT or a clever quasi-experiment reveals the causal agent producing that phenomenon. Even more than that, they want something actionable, a causal agent that Somebody can Do Something About, like how all the Michael LaCour fakery was about changing people’s minds for good (and for Good) with a quick in-person visit.

On second thought, it’s not so much that social scientists want to skip Brahe and Kepler and go straight to Newton and Einstein. It’s that they want to flap their arms to get to the moon.

With psychometrics, we have years upon years of well-measured data, that fit into regular patterns, and that we are beginning, perhaps, to identify causal agents behind. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law meant that the test scores (technically, proficiency rates) by race and English Language Learner status had to be published for practically every school in the country, so it’s no longer just a matter for researchers: somebody or other in every school district has to frown imposingly at the data every year and create whole separate administrative departments devoted to Closing the Gaps.

But anything actionable in anything more than a folk wisdom sense is probably a ways off. The George W Bush Education Department created a separate Institute for filtering through all the terribly conducted education studies and funding ones that would have some credibility. Then, the idea was that this would reveal that certain practices Work to Close the Gap. But, even ignoring publication bias or potential researcher conflict of interest, there are remarkably few studies that show any credible evidence behind one program or another at all. When the Education Department actually summarizes all the studies together to find what they say about, how to teach Algebra, the evidence behind their suggestions is, they have to admit,”minimal.” The Iron Law (that nothing makes a difference) remains the Iron Law.

The interventions with more evidence behind them tend to be things like KIPP, that are far too intensive for most families to buy into or be universally applied, and that work in part by drawing out the subset of black and Hispanic kids who are ready to commit to round-the-clock schooling, kicking out the kids who aren’t, and avoiding the lawsuits and Justice Department investigations that would be triggered if you tried to apply their disciplinary methods to regular schools. Other plausibly effective interventions are left on the shelf because they go directly opposite how we want things to be: HBCUs might well be more effective for most black college students than UNC or Yale, but nobody who matters wants to hear that.

The stars are up there for all to see (even if it’s harder to see them in Midtown Manhattan), and that certainly was part of why astronomy had a big head start on other sciences.  One of the funny things about our era is that an awful lot of educational data has been left out for all to see and come up with their own conclusions from, even if it differs from the Official Line.

It seems at least as plausible to me that the data will stop being available as that the Official Line will change.

7 thoughts on “Brahe, Kepler, Newton

  1. Dear Spotted Toad,

    I’m a big fan of this blog because of your discussion of IQ and public policy. I’m guessing, based on your posts, that you agree with what Education Realist calls the “Voldemort View”. How long do you think it will take for respectable people to come over to your view because my impression is that that’s where all this genome sequencing stuff is going? Charles Murray seems to think it’ll only be a couple more years. How do you think this will all play out; will places like Vox and the NYT just go into denial? Also how do you think both the edu-liberals (its racism!) and edu-reformers (its culture!) manage to maintain their worldview?

    Thanks 🙂


    1. Hi John, Thanks for your comment; I’ve answered the first question in today’s post. The second question- how will the media react to increasingly indisputable evidence of genetic determination of (some portion) of intelligence: I think the main response will be to claim that genetic data only gives information about within population rather than between population differences (this has been an approach taken by Freddie DeBoer and Matt Yglesias already) and also to claim that this kind of determinism provides more evidence for the need for a welfare state (ie, if income is the result of genetic predisposition rather than effort, then the society has less of an obligation to reward that which was “given” to an individual by virtue of their genes.) I wrote about some of these issues here: ( )


  2. I’m really glad you’re keeping the blog going. I have no doubt that you have more silent fans lurking in the shadows than those who will pester you in the comments. But you’re probably not writing it for us…

    I’m probably going to repeat some of the same things I’ve written before, but I tend to do that and what else can a simple mind do?

    What I like most is the mix between a fatalism about the hubris that strives to change everything in the world and the optimism about much humbler genuine individual impacts that are possible. It’s depressing but melancholy can liberate if it allows us to focus on what is actually in our grasp. Humility and patience are probably among our most important virtues that have been lost. Strive to fly before we learn to walk indeed. Still I understand the haste and the impatience.

    Perhaps you could share more stories about what keeps you going as a teacher? On the one hand you’re often quite clear about your cynicism about the biggest plans that are doomed to disappoint. On the other hand your stories about how you connect with individual pupils in simple fleeting ways are extremely moving. Still it seems like a battle for meaningful impact in a brutal context in which hardly anything can make any difference. Fatalism that even if you succeed at teaching your pupils science or if your peer Education Realist teaches his kids advanced calculus, that it won’t matter because the economy, society and the community hardly value these accomplishments because the opportunities don’t exist there that capitalize on that learning investment.

    Maybe I’m just romanticizing your profession, the humble everyday work of helping pupils reach their potential. I find saddening much of the rhetoric that is ready to dismiss certain classes of individuals because they may be statistically less able to achieve at the same level as other classes. While it is likely fruitless to try to close gaps between these classes, there is still a gap between the potential of every individual and actual achievement that can be closed.


    1. Well, it would be about what “kept” me going…I’d certainly agree that school is very, very important. Whether or not it helps a kid reach his or her potential, it’s whether they have to spend a good portion of their childhood, so you hope it’s a pleasant place. I’ll have to think some more about your other questions.


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