Citekey: @Phillips2014-jd

Phillips, D. C. (2014). Research in the hard sciences, and in very hard “softer” domains. Educational Researcher . Retrieved from



Drawing on the work of Popper and Dewey, this commentary highlights the relative similarities between hard sciences and education research in their rhetorical nature, while acknowledging the divergent paths of these two fields of inquiry with regard to prediction and generalizability. (p. 1)

given the highly contextualized nature of educational processes, embedded in shifting complex social settings, and the relevance of all variables, very little education research is able to pursue predictive power. (p. 1)

physics envy (p. 1)

the hypothetico-deductive method (p. 1)

And in the course of doing this work, we face great difficulties—epistemological, methodological, and practical, lib- erally seasoned from time to time by the economic hardship of underfunding and by uninformed interference by governmental agencies issuing ideologically based methodological strictures. (p. 1)

Dewey even made the point that Popper became famous for can- vassing (although Popper probably does deserve the credit as he made it in an extremely powerful way)—namely, researchers must ensure that they do not focus their efforts on proving that (p. 1)

it is moot because (with an important proviso) all competent inquiries (to use John Dewey’s [1938] felicitous expression from Logic: The Theory of Inquiry) have the same fea- tures. (p. 1)

they are right; they must not, in the terminology sometimes used in the educational methodology literature, adopt a “confirma- tory orientation.” Popper argued that it always is possible to find some evidence that one’s favored hypothesis is right, but this counts for little—what is crucial is that one attempts to find evidence that it is wrong. (p. 2)

The issue here, of course, concerns predictive power, or—what is a closely related, if not exactly the same, thing—the issue of generalizability of the findings of a research study. (p. 2)

Some very fine pieces of education research aim to achieve in- depth understanding of a single, specific context of educational significance, with all of its relevant particular, individualizing features taken into account. (p. 2)

owever, rarely if ever do researchers operating in this mode aspire to make predictions. (p. 2)

In the hard physical sciences, confounding variables can eventually be controlled, but in research in educational set- tings, these factors are not nuisances but are of great human and educational significance—control here removes all sem- blance of ecological validity. (p. 2)

s all being attempts to make a compelling case one way or the other. (p. 2)

differ- ences between the fields (p. 2)

Perhaps the feature that has been most responsible for the astounding progress of the physical sciences over the past few centuries is its ability to put its hypotheses (and the cases that were made to support them) to the test, by making precise predictions that can then be subjected to empirical verification or refutation. (p. 2)

The soft field of educa- tion research is held by many to fare poorly here, for the mak- ing of precise predictions is vanishingly rare, (p. 2)

the problem is that in education, just about all the variables are relevant, and controlling them (even if possible let alone desirable) yields (p. 2)

results that are difficult or impossible to generalize to the other almost infinite number of settings where these variables do, indeed, vary. (p. 3)

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