Murray Davis on learning from stories

March 11, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Jay Livingston writes:

Your recent post and the linked article on storytelling reminded me of Murray Davis’s article on theory, which has some of the same themes. I haven’t reread it in a long time, so my memory of the details is hazy. Here are the first two paragraphs, which might give you an idea of what the remaining 15,000 words contains.

It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting. Those who carefully and exhaustively verify trivial theories are soon forgotten, whereas those who cursorily and expediently verify interesting theories are long remembered. In fact, the truth of a theory has very little to do with its impact, for a theory can continue to be found interesting even though its truth is disputed — even refuted!

Since this capacity to stimulate interest is a necessary if not sufficient characteristic of greatness, then any study of theorists who are considered great must begin by examining why their theories are considered interesting — why, in other words, the theorist is worth studying at all. But before we can attempt even this preliminary task we must understand clearly why some theories are considered interesting while others are not. In this essay, I will try to determine what it means for a theory to be considered interesting (or, in the extreme, fascinating).

That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology
By Murray S. Davis
Phil. Soc. Sci. 1 (1971), 309-344

A quick search found this copy of Davis’s article online. I agree that these ideas overlap with those of Basbøll and me; Davis just as a different focus, as he’s engaging with the literatures in philosophy and sociology, whereas we come at the problem from a philosophy-of-science and literary perspective.

Also interesting is this statement from Davis:

I [Davis] contend that the ‘generation’ of interesting theories ought to be the object of as much attention as the ‘verification’ of insipid ones.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Nowadays we wouldn’t talk of “verification” of a theory (even though lots of people in the “Psychological Science” or “PPNAS” world seem to think that way). And, indeed, I’m concerned less about “insipid” theories than about exciting-sounding theories (shark attacks swing elections! beautiful people have more daughters! Cornell students have ESP! himmicanes!) that don’t make a lot of sense and aren’t supported by the data. That all said, I agree that the generation of theories is not well understood and that this is a topic that deserves further study.

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