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Explanations, Narrative, and Understanding: Intersections Between Science and History

January 4, 2013

Some months ago I wrote about “The Logic of Narratives.” At the end of the post I made a big observation and asked some big questions:

Plausibly ordered evidence, presented coherently and with some through-line, and with some style (simple to complex), seems to trump all forms of argument presented, as by philosophers, in logical form. How is this so? What does it say about our minds? About logic as taught in philosophy? And finally about the power of storytelling—of history?

After reading the post, an old Loyola friend, Abe Schwab, formerly a graduate student in philosophy and now a philosophy professor at IUPU-Fort Wayne, suggested I read this essay: Trout, J.D. “Scientific Explanation and the Sense of Understanding.” Philosophy of Science 69 (June 2002): 212–233. I have now read the piece.

The article’s abstract relays that Trout will argue two points, the first being subservient to the second:

(1) “Sense of understanding is in part the routine consequence of two well-documented biases in cognitive psychology: overconfidence and hindsight.”

(2) “In light of the prevalence of [these two forms] of counterfeit understanding in the history of science, I argue that many forms of cognitive achievement do not involve a sense of understanding, and that only the truth or accuracy of an explanation make the sense of understanding a valid cue to genuine understanding.”

So we have several terms, phrases, and subjects to understand—as presented by Trout—in order to fully absorb his argument: sense of understanding, cognitive psychology, overconfidence, hindsight, history of science, science (today/present), truth, accuracy, explanation, scientific explanation, and genuine understanding. And we need to understand condition (1) above before we can understand the full argument (2).

Given that the article is only twenty pages long, it would be a tall order to both define all of these terms and also build his own argument. So Trout assumes we understand some of the above: truth, accuracy, genuine understanding, cognitive psychology, history of science, and science today (empiricism). As such, Trout focuses on explaining sense of understanding, overconfidence, hindsight, explanation, and scientific explanation.

As one reads the article, it becomes clear that Trout offers no clear line between explanation and scientific explanation. He ranges far beyond just science when he discusses sense of understanding, overconfidence, hindsight, and the psychology of understanding. And his line between examples from the history of scientific explanation and scientific explanation today is also not bright. The blurring of these two lines creates problems in Trout’s essay, but I’ll save that criticism for later.

In the body of the article Trout relays his argument across pages 213-215. He argues that “the psychological sense of understanding is just a kind of confidence, abetted by hindsight, of intellectual satisfaction that a question has been adequately answered. This sense of satisfaction is confidence that one enjoys an accurate description of the underlying causal factors sufficient…to bring about the phenomenon we are examining. but confidence is, notoriously, not an indicator of truth” (p. 213-214).

I get the point about the mere feeling of confidence and truth (or genuine understanding). But do scientists (social and/or hard) routinely relay “confidence” based on mere hindsight? I think not. Is it not true that the confidence in results obtained by scientists rests on repetition of an experiment, as well as the isolation of variable?

In the hard sciences, as I understand them, confidence in an explanation (or a narrative or a sense of understanding—i.e. results) comes from the repetition of an experiment, often with minor changes in variables such that the scientist can eliminate false explanations. Control groups are often used. The explanation aspires to such a point that if ten scientists (say physicists) ran the same data according to the same methodology, 9.5-10 of them should get the same results. This has nothing to do with the feelings or state of digestion of the physicist have nothing to do with the core of the explanation offered. The essence of the narrative should be the same.

In the social sciences, confidence derives from either experimentation or the reliance on hard data. Results and data can be both quantitative and qualitative. In history, for instance, confidence in an explanation comes from using multiple points of evidence, over time, to construct an qualitative explanation that connects as many data points as possible and is plausible (if not perfectly reproduceable by others). If ten historians looked at exactly the same data, we might see a 60-70 percent correlation in explanations. The feelings and state of digestion of each historian may, in fact, account for some core differences in explanation—in the narrative of each historian.

So I can see Trout’s point if he’s talking about historians of science and how they relay scientific explanations. But I reject Trout’s assertion if he’s talking about scientific explanation as offered by scientists over the last 100 years or so, and especially last 50 years.

Trout offers more on his thesis in the body of the article—and adds to my point about his fuzzy lines between explanation/scientific explanation and historical scientific explanation/today’s scientific explanations. After discussing examples from the history of science (Darwin, Avogadro via Perrin), Trout writes (bolds mine):

“At the moment, there is neither a satisfying formal account of explanation, nor agreement about the important informal criteria for good explanation, producing what one review casts as ‘an embarrassment for the philosophy of science‘ (Newton-Smith, 2000, 134). Current theories of explanation may leave us embarrassed, but we should be at least as embarrassed by our ‘feels-right’ diagnostic standard for the acceptance of an explanation” (p. 214).

So is Trout upset with explanation today, or in the past? Is his sense of past explanations colored by the narratives of historians of science? What present-day scientist use a “‘feels-right’ diagnostic” for their explanations? Trout does not name any, either in the body of the article or in his footnotes. Only historical figures are named. Or is Trout primarily concerned with this problem (i.e. feels-right) in the past?

What do historians of science have to say about this “embarrassment”? No historians of science are mentioned in the text or the footnotes, so I have to assume Trout has no problem with them. Trout also does not discuss those who theorize or philosophize about historical narrative (e.g. Gaddis, Fischer, Foucault, Lovejoy, Bourdieu, Jameson). Even the physicist, historian, and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is not mentioned (i.e. not discussions of paradigmic explanations or paradigm shifts). Kuhn’s rival Michael Polanyi is also not mentioned. Given these absences, one must assume that Trout is concerned with present-day explanations primarily—meaning that historical examples are meant to be indicative of present-day problems. Given his thesis, Trout will only be working in an area that constituting overlap between cognitive psychology and philosophy as it deals with explanation.

This overlap brings up another area I found confusing in the article. In the opening pages, even before Trout reaches his thesis, he seems to conflate ‘feeling’ [i.e. feels-right, the “affective component” (p. 213)] and ‘sensing’ (i.e. sense of understanding). The former obviously involves psychology (cognitive and otherwise), but the latter involves cognitive psychology [“psychological sense of understanding” as “confidence” (p. 213), or “subjective sense of understanding…conveyed by a psychological impression”] and traditional philosophy.

Trout hints at a traditional philosophy of the sensing-feeling distinction when he gets to “the traditional account” of understanding, as related to explanation, as based in reconstruction: “understanding requires that the individual be able to piece together bits of information in their cognitive possession.” He continues: “Reconstructive accounts of explanation agree on one point: Understanding is centrally involved in explanation, whether as an intellectual goal or as a means of unifying practice” (p. 215). In support of his traditional account Trout cites Peter Achinstein, David Lewis, Wesley Salmon, Michael Friedman, Peter Railton, Philip Kitcher, and James Woodward—all publishing papers in the 1980s and 1990s. Each of this figures “associate[s] explanation with understanding.” Layering Ronald Giere into his account of reconstruction, Trout incorporates terms and phrases like detailing, fitting (establishing fit), identifying, and detective work.

I was struck by how Trout’s accounting of traditional scientific explanation correlates with good historical thinking (e.g. pondering causation, change over time, complexity, context, and contingency) that lays the groundwork for narrative construction. Put another way, historians identify sources to (re)construct a narrative that involves fitting evidence (that could be used in contingent fashions), narrowing sources of causation from a broad context, explaining change over time, and accounting for complexity. I guess this shows how historians are social scientists as much as they are humanists. Good critical thinking translates across fields.

But two problems arose for me in these passages.

First, what of other traditional sources used to explain how one arrives at a genuine sense of understanding—how one builds a narrative of understanding without equivocating between sensing and feeling. Take for instance Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’) division of understanding into sensing, perceiving, apprehending, and judging. This way of breaking down understanding is not addressed in the text.

Although Trout uses other, non-Aristotelian examples from the history of science and philosophy, he defaults toward recent cognitive psychology to work through, or up to, a meanings of explanation and senses of understanding (pp. 216-222). He uses William Brewer (et al), William James, and Carl Hempel, as well as the aforementioned Salmon, Friedman, and Kitcher. In talking through these figures he focuses on issues like coherence (including completeness, plausibility, and consistency), objectivism in explanation (features of external objects), causal mechanisms, the “scientific world picture,” cognitive efficiency, tractability, global v. local knowledge, and the “internalization of argument.” Again, these issues—particularly the notion of a “scientific world picture”—beg me to ask: what of Khun and Polanyi? The line between cognitive psychology and epistemology gets really thin in these conversations. It would have helped if Trout had supplied some sense of his difference between the two and why that difference matters in his article.

Second, and this a major complaint that spans the entire article, but was reinforced after reading the cognitive psychology section: what of the difference between delivering or composing an explanation (scientific or otherwise) and receiving the same? From who to whom? Neither Trout nor the thinkers he cited—at least in the material provided—work hard at this distinction. It is explicitly mentioned in two spots: Brewer notes the “reader-hearer” (p. 216), and Trout addresses the “the ‘transfer of structure’…from one individual to others” (p. 222). But both discussions are very brief, done in passing.

This a major flaw in the article, haunting every discussion of the idea of explanation. Explanations are always constructed with an audience in mind, whether it is one’s self, one’s colleagues, or the general public. The author-receiver distinction should have been made early, and thoroughly explained. Aren’t sensing and feeling entirely different phenomena in relation to the deliverer and the receiver?

As for the rest of the article, particularly the discussion of hindsight and overconfidence biases (pp. 223-229), I observed no major problems and had no complaints. In the historical profession we use the term “presentism” to describe what Trout calls hindsight bias in scientific explanations. It is a problem, a fallacy, in historical explanations, particularly in relation to recent history (post-World War II). But this problem is well-known—taught to first-year graduate students and sniffed out quickly in professional settings (whether peer-reviewed articles or conference papers). As a historical fallacy, presentism is solved by instilling requisite humility in the author and the reader. That humility comes through in historical thinking when the author and reader properly acknowledge complexity, a wider scope of context, and subjectivity (i.e. perspective) in explanations.

I want to thank Abe Schwab for bringing this piece to my attention. Even if I’m dissatisfied with major parts of J.D. Trout’s article, it has caused me to think in great detail about the intersections between history and the sciences. Before reading this I had mostly only thought about overlaps in terms of evidence and a posteriori/inductive thinking. I had never given thought to intersecting issues of explanation and narration. I had always thought of scientific explanation/narration as a bare bones, stripped down affair—not subject to the fallacies that plague flowery historical exposition. Now I know differently. – TL


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  1. Tim. Philosophy of science, like much of contemporary analytic philosophy is, in my view, a conversation that has gone on too long without taking a breath of air. They have their few problems and a very specific way of talking about them, and don’t really consider what else is going on in the world. Most importantly much thinking there is extremely ahistorical. I would venture a guess that Trout would take offense to your suggestion that there is similarity between historical methods and scientific methods.

    Just few random point about your queries without me having looked at the article itself.

    Kuhn has been rejected by most philosophers of science, I think by the late 70s. What they couldn’t get over was the concept of incommensurability. Polanyi, gets even less consideration.

    Scientific explanation is a big problem in philosophy of science, but one that is much narrower than you think. (for example see here )

    You are not sure if he is talking about scientific explanation in the past or the present. I’d guess it makes no difference to him. Very ahistorical thinking.

    There are a number of philosopher of science who try to be more historical and contextual in their thinking. But many are still not. Philosophy of Science, if my memory serves me right, is not very historical. There are other journals that are more historically oriented.

    I am glad that you got something out of the article, but I stopped seriously considering most philosophy of science discussion as relevant in light of last 40 years of work in the history of science and the studies of science and technology.

  2. First, citations of two articles that continue discussion of Trout’s article (I haven’t read either):

    1. A professional reply to Trout’s article: Henk de Regt, “Discussion Note: Making Sense of Understanding,” Philos of Sc 71, 1, Jan 2004.

    2. And Trout’s reply to de Regt: Trout, “Paying the Price for a Theory of Explanation: De Regt’s Discussion of Trout,” Philos of Sc 72 (Jan 2005)

    • Aside: I noticed that neither de Regt nor Trout are cited in the SEP article. – TL

  3. Sylwester,

    Thanks for the long comment!

    Why would Trout take offense at my suggestion? Do you think that Trout wouldn’t buy my assertion that the social sciences live, in part, in the realm of empiricism? Weird (to me at least).

    Thanks for the SEP article citation. I meant to look up the topic there, but obviously never got around to it.

    On Kuhn, thanks for the clarification. I knew, somehow, that he wasn’t taken seriously by scientists but had forgotten why. I don’t understand “incommensurability” very well, so I’d need to read up on that on that topic before commenting.

    – Tim

  4. Tim,
    From my reading many philosophers and not only ahistorical, but also insists that ideas can be analysed by themselves without regard for context. Therefore the very foundation of historical method is at odds with those assumptions.

    I think scientists have taken to Kuhn better than most philosophers (e.g. my Quantum physics textbook had two parts, Quantum world, and Quantum paradigm).

    I think you have given the article a very generous reading. Obviously I have some personal frustrations with philosophy of science that are coming out 🙂 (But i still try to read it from time to time and pin point my my disagreements).

    In my view that is the problem with much of academic though, the conversation has gone on too long and it seems difficult to engage with the thread that you are not personally part of, but that is whole another topic…

  5. Bill Fine permalink

    Tim —
    After reading your post, I located some items in addition to those you mentioned in a comment: de Regt and Dennis Dieks, “A Contextual Approach to Scientific Understanding,” Synthese 144, March 2005; de Regt, “The Epistemic Value of Understanding,” in Philosophy of Science Dec 2009; and de Regt, etal, eds, Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives, 2009. The last is particularly timely, since the concept of understanding seems to be getting a lot of attention in the philosophy of science, and is related to broader discussions of the “practice turn” in epistemology and “virtue epistemology.” See for example, John Greco and John Turri, “Virtue Epistemology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Lena Soler, etal, eds, Characterizing the Robustness of Science: After the Practice Turn in Philosophy of Science, 2012.
    This entire discussion has varied and interesting implications for historians, some of which Tim raised. For example, a recent article by Bert Leuridan and Anton Froeyman, “On Lawfulness in History and Historiography,” History and Theory 51, 2012, shows some of this work is beginning to percolate into history.
    To go back to the “originals,” I found de Regt’s critique of Trout quite devastating, though I appreciate Trout’s worries about understanding, and don’t see how de Regt can completely dismiss the role of hindsight bias and overconfidence. But I was persuaded that Trout sets up a straw man in his “feels right” characterization of the sense of understanding, and creates a false dichotomy between understanding and explanation, the subjective and objective. At the same time, as de Regt points out and Trout admits, he provides no account of properly explanatory understanding.
    Surely, as Trout argues, belief and truth can be light-years apart, and a sense of understanding is no guarantee of scientific truth, but I think he goes too far in dissociating them, and treating everything short of explanatory understanding in terms of cognitive bias. Surely, “the phenomenology of explanatory understanding” can’t simply be dismissed as a “poisonous …combination of seduction and unreliability.” [2002, 229-230]

    It seems that de Regt’s work is part of a broad trend toward more pluralized, pragmatic, contextualist and interpretive approaches in the philosophy of science. Many more features of science than before are taken to have epistemic value; its aims to include, but extend beyond, causal explanation. Understanding comes in many forms, and is acquired through a variety of pragmatic “tools.” The “intelligibility” of theories and models is a function of properties usable by scientists with the requisite virtues and skills. De Regt also emphasizes the importance of “qualitative” understanding of theories and models, apart from doing calculations, something it seems like tacit knowledge.
    I’m not sure that de Regt would identify as a virtue epistemologist as described by Greco and Turri, but his line of thought seems at least similar:
    An evidentialist might define an epistemically justified belief as one that is supported by the evidence, and then define evidence in a way that entirely abstracts from the properties of the person. On such an approach, it would be natural to understand intellectual virtues as dispositions to believe in accordance with the evidence (which, again, is defined independently, without mentioning the virtues). A virtue epistemologist would reverse the order of analysis, defining justified belief as one that manifests intellectual virtue, and evidence in terms of intellectual virtue.
    De Regt defends against subjectivism and relativism in part by observing that scientific communities “learn” over time, but in the works I’ve looked at, he doesn’t discuss applications to the history of science. But it seems that the philosophy of science may become less ahistorical — Sylvester’s complaint — as these new perspectives take hold. On the other hand, a number of historians have been drawing on related literature for some time, eg, Joel Isaac, “Tangled Loops: Theory, History, and the Human Sciences in Modern America,” Modern Intellectual History 6,2, 2009.

    Tim, the approach taken by Leuridan and Froeyman that I mentioned above might be helpful in your thinking about parallels of good scientific and historical thinking. They argue that scientific “laws” as not, as they’ve been thought, universal and unconditional, but rather like the law-like generalizations that historians pursue.
    Another thought: I wonder if a more relaxed view of historical understanding might reconfigure discussions about the explanatory value of narrative. On the other hand, I wonder whether historians sometimes go too far in collapsing history into narrative, in judging histories in terms of whether they tell a good story. In this vein, Cronon’s recent presidential address to the AHA is both intriguing and disturbing, especially since elsewhere he’s prioritized the need to appeal to audiences.
    Finally, I’d like to explore relations between the pragmatic turn in epistemology and other areas in philosophy. I want to take a look at Philip Kitcher, Preludes to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philos, 2012, and read some of the material on epistemic approaches to democracy, eg, Episteme 5, 1, 2008.

    • Bill: This is great! Thanks for all the references and citations. I’ll look into the Leuridan-Froeyman article. And I agree with you, Bill, that history can fruitfully be more like argument and explanation than just storytelling—though weaving a good story has the value of accessibility. – TL

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