an article of faith?

In my literature, there is an interesting to-and-fro between researchers from different schools of thought.

In one paper, Authors X, Y, et al. criticise Authors A, B, et al. for sticking with a theory which hypothesises a cognitive (linguistic) deficit in the absence of convincing/relevant perceptual deficits.

Authors X, Y et al make the stinging point that neuroscience research in general “has yet to find a cognitive deficit that arises detached from any neural underpinnings in terms of sensory or perceptual problems” – implying that you can only take a cognitive deficit seriously if there is physical/biological performance data to support it.

Presumably stung, Authors A, B et al respond in their subsequent paper by saying that this position is “an article of faith, not a scientific result”.

For discussion: to what extent are Authors A, B et al right to allege that the position of Authors X, Y et al is an article of faith, and to what extent, if at all, does this undermine the position of Authors X, Y et al?

(As flagged in passing in a footnote in my thesis.)

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3 thoughts on “an article of faith?

  1. I feel underqualified to take a position on whether the claim – that “you can only take a cognitive deficit seriously if there is physical/biological performance data to support it” – is an article of faith.

    It seems to revolve around the question of what is a reasonable “null hypothesis” (a concept that, I know, I’m stretching well beyond its principle role in statistical inference). To me, the assertion sounds reasonable: we cannot measure cognitive deficits directly; we can only observe them via their effects on physical performance and behaviour. Thus, without evidence of such effects, we have no evidence of a deficit. Without evidence, we have no grounds to posit a deficit.

    So I think that X and Y are right, in that they seem to be asserting the general scientific attitude of requiring evidence for claims. As such, the retort that this is “an article of faith” is perhaps true, but misleading. This article of faith is foundational to all of science: don’t accept a claim until there is evidence that it is true.

    Having said all that, I would happily defer to your judgment, Cath, on the particular claim about cognitive deficits, as it is not an area I have ventured far into in my research.

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  2. No, imo it doesn’t make sense to posit a cognitive deficit in the absence of behavioural data. In the literature it’s not quite as bad as that though – more just a chain of inferences which in my view goes too far – taking a task with some vaguely phonological element, such as rapid naming, eg, or paired associate learning, then characterising it as a task which taps phonology, then concluding that a performance deficit in this task is indicative of a deficit in phonological representations – but without acknowledging the relevance of other skills or attempting to control for them.

    On the article of faith, I also agree. The footnote:

    As part of their response, the authors of [ref A] respond by saying that the position articulated in the excerpt I have quoted here is “an article of faith, not a scientific result”. This is true to the extent that it is an axiom which guides theory and research, but which can be neither proven nor disproven by “scientific results”. Empirical data is always silent in the absence of a guiding theory: scientific results are always interpreted from the starting point of “articles of faith” in the non-pejorative sense; the alternative view to what [ref X] articulates is every bit as much an “article of faith” itself. Comments such as this therefore do little more than sidestep the conceptual issues under discussion.

    Which still leaves open the question, arguably, of where these foundational axioms come from, or, perhaps, how they can be adhered to in the absence of empirical supporting evidence?

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  3. It is a good question: where do these axioms come from? Philosophically, one might be tempted to say either “from nowhere” (they are simply asserted) or “from a transcendent source” (thus not relying on the sort of foundation that non-axiomatic statements rely on).

    From a pragmatic standpoint, we could alternatively say that these are the axioms that seem to work. Occam’s razor, objective and quantifiable observation, methodological naturalism – they all help to constrain our pursuits in such a way that progress is possible.

    That of course raises the question, “What is meant by progress?” I think I’ll avoid that minefield for the sake of brevity.

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