A Dilemma for the Russo–Williamson Thesis

The Russo–Williamson thesis states that

“in order to establish a causal claim in medicine, one normally needs to establish both that the putative cause and putative effect are appropriately correlated and that there is some underlying mechanism that can account for this correlation.”

Wilde (2022) explores counterexamples to this where a causal claim was accepted before a mechanism was confirmed, e.g.,

  • Deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
  • Soot as a cause of scrotal cancer before the mechanisms involving benzo[a]pyrene had been established.

Lots to ponder therein, e.g., whether it works to weaken the causal condition to require a plausible mechanism that need not necessarily be established. But there are worries that this manoeuvre leads to a thesis that is too weak since, particularly in social science, it is often easy to come up with some kind of plausible mechanism. Read the paper for a proposed solution!


Wilde, M. (2022). A Dilemma for the Russo–Williamson ThesisErkenntnis, in press

The object-subject relation in science

“One can only help oneself through something like the following emergency decree: Quantum mechanics forbids statements about what really exists—statements about the object. Its statements deal only with the object-subject relation. Although this holds, after all, for any description of nature, it evidently holds in a much more radical and far reaching sense in quantum mechanics.”

– Erwin Schrödinger (1931) letter to Arnold Sommerfeld, spotted in
Fuchs, C. A., Mermin, N. D., & Schack, R. (2014). An introduction to QBism with an application to the locality of quantum mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 82(8), 749–754.


Quantitative social research – the worst kind, except for all the others

Breznau, et al. (2022) asked a group of 161 researchers in 73 teams to analyse the same dataset and test the same hypothesis: greater immigration reduces public support for the welfare state. As we now expect in this genre of the literature, results varied. See the study’s figure below:

So roughly 60% of analyses found a non-statistically significant result. Of the 40% that were statistically significant, 60% found a negative association and 40% found a positive association.

Social scientists are well-versed in the replication crisis and, e.g., the importance of preregistering analyses and not relying too heavily on the findings from any one study.

Mathur et al. (2022) offer a glimmer of hope, though. The variation looks fairly wild when focussing on whether a hypothesis test was statistically significant or not. However, 90% of analyses found that a one-unit increase in immigration was associated with an increase or decrease in public support of less than 4% of a standard deviation – tiny effects!

I also find hope in all the meta-analyses transparently showing biases. It seems that quantitative social science is the most unreliable and difficult to replicate form of social science, except for all the others.


Breznau, N., et al. (2022). Observing many researchers using the same data and hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty. PNAS 119(44), e2203150119 (2022).

Mathur, M. B., Covington, C., & VanderWeele, T. (2022, November 22). Variation across analysts in statistical significance, yet consistently small effect sizes. Preprint.

Mastodon and R

Encoding binary data in hashtags

Problem: you want to encode arbitrary binary data as a hashtag on Mastodon or another social media platform.

A solution: transform to a hex string and shift the \(0, 1, 2 \ldots, f\) up to \(a, b, c \ldots, p\) so all the bytes are lowercase Latin characters.

Example: #gihehehahddkcpcphhhhhhcohjgphfhehfgcgfcogdgpgncphhgbhegdgidphgdngefbhhdehhdjfhghfigdfb

Repo here

Accessing the Mastodon API via {rtoots}

I was curious to know if there’s a positive correlation between the total number of users on a server and how many followers I have from that server. {rtoots} to the rescue…

Repo here


IBM unveils a 433-qubit quantum computer

IBM has today unveiled a 433-qubit quantum processor – progress in the field is accelerating.

One of the example uses of quantum computers is prime factorisation, which they can do much faster than can classical computers. One reason this is of interest is that the security of public key encryption – used everywhere on the net, from LinkedIn to banks – depends on the computational difficulty of prime factorisation.

To break a 2048-bit RSA public key would take trillions of years on a classical computer. A paper published last year argued that a 2048-bit RSA public key could be cracked in 8 hours on a quantum computer. However, that would require 20,000,000 qubits – rather more than the 433 announced today. So, our secrets seem to be safe for a while yet.

Reminiscing about BSSM

I used to run a social science methodology discussion group. Dumping the event list here, since the direction of travel of discussions tends to repeat, e.g., mixing methods, role of theory, sample size, limits of introspection, …

When Info / Readings
Thurs 6 Feb BISR BSSM research network social

This is a joint event with BSSM and the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research. Lunch will be included.

Tues 21 Jan Hilda Weiss, sociologist: A critical theorist of a lesser kind?

Detlef Garz, Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (HWK) Institute for Advanced Study

Hilda Weiss (29 August 1900 – 29 May 1981) was a sociologist and one of the first doctoral students at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt (joining 1924) which is famous for its role in developing critical theory. She played a central role in designing and running a large study of political views and employment conditions in Germany, 1930, working with Erich Fromm. Given her life, contributions to sociology, and methodological innovations, it seems odd that she has been mostly relegated to the occasional footnote in papers on people like Fromm. This talk will explore her life and contributions to sociology and critical theory.

Please sign up on Eventbrite

Thurs 7 Nov Analytic philosophy as critical theory: what can it do for empirical studies of gender?

Katharine Jenkins, University of Nottingham

Although the distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy is difficult to pinpoint and easy to critique, there is nevertheless a fairly distinct literature that can be thought of as ‘analytic philosophy of social science’. Moreover, critical theory – theory understood as part of an emancipatory social movement – is often seen as part of continental philosophy and not as part of analytic philosophy. Crucially, critical theory involves being in contact with, and responsive to, one or more social justice movements, and developing theoretical tools that are useful for advancing the aims of these movements.In this talk, I explore the possibility for undertaking analytic philosophy of social science as a form of critical theory, with the intention of supplying tools to empirical social science that can aid emancipatory work. Using gender as a case study, I argue that it is possible to use the methods of analytic philosophy to fulfil the aims of critical theory, and that the clarity and precision that analytic philosophy brings can be useful for empirical research. I offer an analytic framework for thinking about social categories or kinds that is suited to projects in critical theory, and I apply this framework to gender in a way that is responsive to transfeminist movements.

Please sign up on Eventbrite

Wed 16 Oct Work in progress: Prediction versus history in political science

Robert Northcott, Philosophy

Robert will introduce a draft of a chapter he is writing on the philosophy of political science. The draft chapter argues that, usually, retrospective testing of wide-scope theories or models will not be appropriate for political science and that forward-looking prediction is required instead. But given the difficulty of the latter, in turn the main actual focus should be on contextual historical work. It then illustrates via a case study what role such a contextual approach leaves for wider-scope theory. It concludes by assessing the scope for political science to offer policy advice.

Weds 24 July Free association

Claudia Lapping, UCL

This session will be a brief introduction to the use of free association as a social research method. You will be invited to try out a couple of exercises: individual free writing and (in pairs) how to encourage free associations in interviews

Weds 29 May Generalising from case studies

Ylikoski, P. (2018). Mechanism-based theorizing and generalization from case studies. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. In press, corrected proof.

Fri 12 April The constant comparative method

Quinn, K. G., Murphy, M. K., Nigogosyan, Z., & Petroll, A. E. (2019). Stigma, isolation and depression among older adults living with HIV in rural areas. Ageing and Society, 1–19.Boeije, H. (2002). A Purposeful Approach to the Constant Comparative Method in the Analysis of Qualitative Interviews. Quality and Quantity, 36, 391–409.

Thurs 7 March Mixing qualitative methods

Cassell & Bishop (2018). Qualitative data analysis: Exploring themes, metaphors and stories. European Management Review.

Clarke, Willis, Barnes, Caddick, Cromby, McDermott & Wiltshire (2015). Analytical pluralism in qualitative research: A meta-study. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12(2), 182-201.

Wed 23 Jan Telling more than we can know?

Petitmengin, C., Remillieux, A., Cahour, B., & Carter-Thomas, S. (2013). A gap in Nisbett and Wilson’s findings? A first-person access to our cognitive processes. Consciousness and Cognition, 22, 654–669.

Petitmengin, C. (2006). Describing one’s subjective experience in the second person: An interview method for the science of consciousness. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 5, 229–269.

Nisbett, R.E. & Wilson, T.D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259.

Tues 4 Dec What happens when mixed method findings conflict?

Johnson, R.B., Russo, F. & Schoonenboom, J., 2017. Causation in Mixed Methods Research: The Meeting of Philosophy, Science, and Practice. Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

Moffatt, S. et al., 2006. Using quantitative and qualitative data in health services research – what happens when mixed method findings conflict? BMC Health Services Research, 6, p.28.

Mon 12 Nov Launch!

Installing Qiskit on a Windows machine

Installing Qiskit (failed attempt 1) – don’t do this

Downloaded Python 3.11.0 for Windows from the Python website.

Followed the instructions to download and install Jupyter using pip.

This complained that I didn’t have rust installed.

At this point, I vaguely remembered reading about a neatly packaged distribution of Python that already had everything installed (Anaconda). But I ploughed on anyway and ventured here.


Pushing 1 grabbed Visual Studio (eventually).

Rust installed and advised me to restart my command prompt, which I ignored – unwisely, because pip couldn’t see rust. So next I did indeed restart the prompt and got it going again:

Promising development. I typed

jupyter notebook

and it started! Behold, a Python program:

Next – install Qiskit. I tried:

pip install qiskit[visualization]

It got stuck trying to install tweedledum:

After googling the error and a few failed attempts to get around it, I gave up. I think I’m going to try Anaconda. (Spoiler – this did work!)

Installing Qiskit again (worked) – do do this

First I uninstalled everything above, and downloaded and installed Anaconda. Note: it is a BIG file. It took a while to install.

Okay, that seemed to work and already came with Jupyter (and added it to the start menu).

Next: Qiskit. Note, I’m using the Anaconda Prompt since it advised me not to add pip, etc., to the system path that the general Command Prompt uses.

That seems to have worked.

Next up, try running a simple circuit. I followed the example (using a simulator) over here.

That definitely worked! Jupyter is fairly intuitive as an RStudio user.

I also installed the qiskit_textbook package:

pip install git+

(which required installing git).

This has a neat Bloch sphere function:

How about running on an actual quantum computer…

Read on to find out how I got on. (I used RStudio in the end!)

Mess, by Rudy Francisco

On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore,
you called for me, voice cracking like two sets of knuckles
before an altercation.

I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass.
I hugged your shatter. I cut all of my fingers
trying to jigsaw puzzle you back together.

When it was over,
you looked at the stains on the carpet
and blamed me for making a mess.