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8 December 2021 - 8 December 2021

1:00PM - 2:00PM

Online seminar using Zoom

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Part of the School of Education Research Seminar Series.

Logic of social scientific claims

Professor Stephen Gorard, School of Education

This will be a virtual seminar using Zoom. Contact for details about how to take part.

This paper considers three different claims to knowledge, namely, “fully descriptive”, “generally descriptive” and causal claims. These are all common in social science, and each type of claim requires more assumptions than the previous one. After discussing their methodological and logical foundations, this paper describes some of the limitations in the nature of these three claims. Fully descriptive claims suffer from non-random errors and inaccuracies in observations, and can be queried in terms of utility. In addition to observational errors, generally, descriptive claims can also be questioned because of the long-standing problem of induction. Even the notion of falsification might not be able to help with this. Finally, causal claims are the most problematic of the three, with all of the problems of the first two and more. While widely assumed, causation itself cannot be observed directly. The paper combines and develops three models of what causation might be, and discusses their implications for causal claims. It illustrates that neither theory nor inferential statistics can help in proving or observing its existence. Focusing on general claims, the paper then focus on what difference new evidence makes to such claims. Finally, the paper provides some suggestions for avoiding being misled by false knowledge and reporting our research findings with tentative care and judgement.


Stephen Gorard is Professor of Education and Public Policy, and Director of the Evidence Centre for Education, at Durham University ( He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, external assessor for the Universities of Hong Kong and Barcelona, and member of the ESRC Commissioning Panel for Research Methods Development Grants. He is a member of the Cabinet Office Trials Advice Panel as part of the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit, and Lead Editor for BERA’s Review of Education. His work concerns the robust evaluation of education as a lifelong process, focused on issues of equity and improvement, especially. He is author of around 30 books and over 1,000 other publications. He is currently funded, inter alia, by the British Academy to look at the impact of schooling in India and Pakistan, by EEF to evaluate the impact of self-affirmation, and by the DfE to evaluate the impact of Glasses in Classes in Opportunity Areas, and for an extension of the study of early education and development (SEED).