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On the difference between econometrics and data science

Summary:
From Lars Syll Causality in social sciences can never solely be a question of statistical inference. Causality entails more than predictability, and to really in depth explain social phenomena require theory. The analysis of variation can never in itself reveal how these variations are brought about. First when we are able to tie actions, processes or structures to the statistical relations detected, can we say that we are getting at relevant explanations of causation. Most facts have many different, possible, alternative explanations, but we want to find the best of all contrastive (since all real explanation takes place relative to a set of alternatives) explanations. So which is the best explanation? Many scientists, influenced by statistical reasoning, think that the likeliest

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from Lars Syll

Causality in social sciences can never solely be a question of statistical inference. Causality entails more than predictability, and to really in depth explain social phenomena require theory. The analysis of variation can never in itself reveal how these variations are brought about. First when we are able to tie actions, processes or structures to the statistical relations detected, can we say that we are getting at relevant explanations of causation.

Most facts have many different, possible, alternative explanations, but we want to find the best of all contrastive (since all real explanation takes place relative to a set of alternatives) explanations. So which is the best explanation? Many scientists, influenced by statistical reasoning, think that the likeliest explanation is the best explanation. But the likelihood of x is not in itself a strong argument for thinking it explains y. I would rather argue that what makes one explanation better than another are things like aiming for and finding powerful, deep, causal, features and mechanisms that we have warranted and justified reasons to believe in. Statistical — especially the variety based on a Bayesian epistemology — reasoning generally has no room for these kinds of explanatory considerations. The only thing that matters is the probabilistic relation between evidence and hypothesis. That is also one of the main reasons I find abduction — inference to the best explanation — a better description and account of what constitute actual scientific reasoning and inferences.

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Some statisticians and data scientists think that algorithmic formalisms somehow give them access to causality. That is simply not true. Assuming ‘convenient’ things like faithfulness or stability is not to give proofs. It’s to assume what has to be proven. Deductive-axiomatic methods used in statistics do no produce evidence for causal inferences. The real causality we are searching for is the one existing in the real world around us. If there is no warranted connection between axiomatically derived theorems and the real-world, well, then we haven’t really obtained the causation we are looking for.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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