The Scientific Method
AchillesSinatra: The scientific method (hereafter TSM) has been traditionally defined as a single, timeless, invariant set of rules governing empirical inquiry, at least since the time of the so-called Scientific Revolution of around 400 years ago. If real, TSM would be precious indeed: it would serve to unify all the prima facie disconnected scientific disciplines (after all, it's far from obvious that anything links the activities of subatomic physicists with economists, say), it would act as the demarcation criterion to distinguish bona fide science from pseudoscience or non-science in general, and it could be appealed to in order to explain the undeniable success of the scientific enterprise.
My own view is that TSM, as characterized above, does not exist.
Whenever I express this view in internet chatrooms or elsewhere, the reaction from more scientifically oriented participants tends to be hostile, sometimes to an almost hysterical degree. One gets the impression these partisan footsoldiers, who by and large are not well read on the issue, feel they are confronted with a religious crackpot, Kentucky hillbilly, or else the victim of some other unidentified pathology. Then all hell breaks loose.
My purpose here, then, will be to articulate the reasons why a growing number of people like myself deny the existence of the scientific method as traditionally understood.
AchillesSinatra: (1) First, we need to be clear about what is, and what is not, being claimed. My claim is not that science is entirely unmethodical; that scientists do not employ various methods of one kind or another. The claim, rather, is that there is no single overarching method of science; there is no unique method employed by all genuine scientists in all times, all places, and all disciplines. Of course chemists use litmus paper to detect the presence of acid, while geologists use dating techniques to determine the age of rocks, say. That said, surely no one would venture the opinion that carbon dating (for example) just is the scientific method.
(2) Before setting out, we must pay careful attention to our application of the concept "method". We must agree that the concept properly applies to certain processes, quintessentially a cookbook recipe for instance (just follow the steps and voila!), and must be withheld from others which depend more on luck or creativity than rigid adherence to a set of rules; a lottery scoop or the writing of a novel, say. If the overzealous defender of science insists on applying the concept "method" no matter what, then the whole notion of a substantive "scientific method" is trivialized and we might as well stop right now and head down the pub instead for a few bevvies.
(3) The reason why belief in TSM is so widespread, and unquestioningly accepted, by the populace at large I suggest is not due to any in-depth investigation conducted into the matter by John Q, but rather simply because the idea is inculcated ad nauseum on Discovery Channel showcases, introductory science textbooks, and by high school science teachers. TSM, until quite recently at least, has just been one of these background assumptions most of us simply take for granted. We've been told it is so by the right kind of people, therefore it must be so.
At this point I'd suggest, unpalatable though it may seem at first blush, that for an understanding of TSM, probably the last people you'd want to consult -- with a few exceptions -- are scientists themselves. The issue of scientific methodology is what we might call a metascientific question; that is to say, a question about science as opposed to a question amenable to the techniques of science itself. I suspect this may be a hard pill for some to swallow, so let me recruit a little assistance from a man whose opinion you might be more willing to lend credence to than my own:
"If you want to find out anything from the theoretical physicists about the methods they use, I advise you to stick closely to one principle: Don't listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds." - Albert Einstein
Scientists, by and large, get on with doing science: metascientific issues lie outwith their own areas of expertise. There are people, however, who devote careers to studying what it is that scientists do, including the methods they employ; these people are philosophers and historians of science, and it is to them we must turn.
AchillesSinatra: (4) Lack of consensus: Ask ten people about TSM and they'll probably all swear to its reality; it's unlikely that any two of them will agree on what it is though, if indeed they are able to provide a specification at all.
Outstanding thinkers who have written on TSM include Descartes for whom deduction is the essence of scientific reasoning; Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Stuart Mill who advocate induction; William Whewell is widely credited with introducing hypothetico-deductivism as the putative method of science (note here that any talk of speculative hypotheses was anathema to inductivists such as Newton).
Moving into the 20th century, Karl Popper famously espoused falsificationism as the method of science. Later, subsequent upon the so-called "historical turn" in the philosophy of science, scholars began to take a close look at what real world scientists actually do -- as opposed to the ivory tower logical idealizations of previous generations -- and in many cases came to a rather stark conclusion: there is no unique method of science. Thomas Kuhn speaks of science in terms of a series of paradigm shifts; Paul Feyerabend, somewhat scandalously, concluded from his studies of historical episodes that the only inviolable methodological precept to be found is "anything goes"!
Now, lack of consensus does not necessarily imply that TSM is chimerical; it may simply be that we have not yet been able to pinpoint it. I would suggest, though, that at the very least, it ought to give pause to even the most implacable apologists of TSM.
(5) The porridge test: Specifications of The Scientific Method invariably turn out to be either too hot or too cold.
If the criteria specified are overly restrictive -- that experimentation, say, be a necessary component -- then it turns out that much of what we intuitively regard as good science ends up being excluded. Many scientists (Copernicus, Darwin, etc), and many areas of science (paleontology, astrophysics, etc) conduct few or no experiments; gardeners meanwhile do lots!
On the other hand, overly permissive criteria -- formulate and test hypotheses, say -- leads to the unpalatable conclusion that pretty much the whole world is doing science. Who among us has never formed and tested a hypothesis? Ever misplaced your car keys?
AchillesSinatra: (6) A final thought for the time being, before I bore the pants off everyone. Given that "hypotheses" always seem to get a mention when the issue of TSM is broached, is the formation of a hypothesis the kind of thing you'd regard as methodical? Is there a step-by-step algorithm for constructing hypotheses? Is this not what would be more aptly described as a creative process? And surely the concepts of creativity and method are diametrically opposed to one another: the more of one, the less of the other.
August Kekulé famously claimed that the ring-structure of the benzene molecule came to him in a dream of a snake eating its own tail -- hardly what might be called a methodical discovery!
My denial of TSM is almost invariably met with a reaction of outrage. It does seem to me, however, if there is any impertinence at all, it arises from those who would have us believe that our finest scientific minds are little more than unthinking automata slavishly adhering to the steps of an inflexible pizza recipe. Genuises need not apply; any fool can do it!
Well, if geniuses need not apply, why do we need the likes of Newton and Einstein?
Comments, criticisms, corrections are all welcome. Thanks!
I leave you with the thoughts of two Nobel Prize-winning scientists who have looked into the philosophical and methodological issues in science:
"Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it....
What appears to [the working scientist] as the essence of the situation is that he is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. In his attack on his specific problem he suffers no inhibitions of precedent or authority, but is completely free to adopt any course that his ingenuity is capable of suggesting to him. No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow. In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists."
Percy W. Bridgman -- "On Scientific Method"
"I know enough about science to know that there is no such thing as a clear and universal "scientific method". All attempts to formulate one since the time of Francis Bacon have failed to capture the way that science and scientists actually work." -- Steven Weinberg (from "Facing Up", essay 4, "Confronting O'Brien" )
AchillesSinatra: Physicist, Alan Sokal, perhaps most well known for being perpetrator of the "Sokal Hoax" at the height of the science wars in the mid 90's, is about as pro-science as they come.
He has this to say on "the scientific method"...
"We fundamentally agree with what Feyerabend says about the scientific method, considered in the abstract: "The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious." "
-- Alan Sokal, "Cognitive Relativism in the Philosophy of Science" in "Beyond the Hoax" p198
AchillesSinatra: My old pal, David Berlinski....
"The scientific method has acquired a certain hold on the popular imagination. Every adult remembers something about the scientific method from high school classes; it figures prominently in textbooks with such titles as Reasoning Together, and it is a polemical bruiser in its weight class, useful under circumstances when members of the scientific community are persuaded they are under attack. It is then that the determination is made that members of the public have failed to understand the scientific method or properly to revere it. No effort need be made actually to exhibit the method or tie it to an argument."
"I will draw down the curtain of charity over this scene. Golf has no method beyond the trivial. Neither does science."
AchillesSinatra: Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg, again....
"Not only does the fact that the standards of scientific success shift with time make the philosophy of science difficult; it also raises problems for the public understanding of science. We do not have a fixed scientific method to rally around and defend. I remember a conversation I had years ago with a high school teacher, who explained proudly that in her school teachers were trying to get away from teaching just scientific facts, and wanted instead to give their students an idea of what the scientific method was. I replied that I had no idea what the scientific method was, and I thought she ought to teach her students scientific facts. She thought I was just being surly. But it's true; most scientists have very little idea of what the scientific method is, just as most bicyclists have very little idea of how bicycles stay erect. In both cases, if they think about it too much, they're likely to fall off."
-- from "Facing Up", essay 8, "The Methods of Science ... and Those by Which We Live"
AchillesSinatra: Alan Sokal again...
"The bottom line, it seems to me, is that there is no fundamental "metaphysical'' difference between the epistemology of science and the epistemology of everyday life. Historians, detectives and plumbers -- indeed, all human beings -- use the same basic methods of induction, deduction, and assessment of evidence as do physicists or biochemists. Modern science tries to carry out these operations in a more careful and systematic way -- using controls and statistical tests, insisting on replication, and so forth -- but nothing more."
("What the Social Text affair does and does not prove" in "Beyond the Hoax" p161)
In other words, Sokal tells us, there is no unique "Method" of science. Scientists employ the same forms of reasoning and modes of inference as all the rest of us, except perhaps -- we'd like to think -- they're a bit more meticulous about it.
This sounds to me exactly right.
Of course, Albert Einstein said something very similar decades prior...
“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”
chronology: Don't know Achilles. You put your hand in a hornets nest there. How about trying to explain the origin of languages?
Personally I believe entirely the story of how a dozen or more languages appeared literally over a short period in what we today call Iraq. The chaos this caused resulted in the world's biggest construction project at that time being abandoned and humans dispersing around the post flood world to establish political nation's.
This sounds like insanity to people today, but it is just what Genesis described. But the point is, at long last after centuries of denial, many linguistic experts are at least comfortable with the assumption that there was an original global language that for some inexplicable reason broke apart and drove humanity to establish rival political nation's all over the ancient world.
But it seems impossible to prove using any method just where languages came from.
AchillesSinatra: Oh, I'd disagree there, Chron.
How language got into the picture in the first place is a complete mystery.
But after it did, these historical linguists are frightfully good at tracing connections, cognates, and links.
You know I just got back from Madagascar, right? Geographically, it's so close to the African mainland one would assume it was initially inhabited by Africans. But some pretty impressive linguistic evidence suggests the original inhabitants came from ... of all places... Borneo!
But, if it makes you feel better, the master of 'em all, Noam Chomsky, has little good to say about natural selection, either.
I'll search for a quote if you like.
AchillesSinatra: and I agree with Noam: "the theory of evolution" is utterly helpless -- as it is with so many other things (like consciousness, say) -- about the origins of human language.
This is the best they can do:
"Er, once there were no languages. Then there was a mutation. Then, um, er, there was."
It's even worse with consciousness.
Wanna hear a story?
"Once upon a time there was no such thing as ontological subjectivity (i.e., consciousness). Then a gene mutated. And voila! "
If you find that convincing, I'm a lemur's uncle
AchillesSinatra: Chomsky on natural selection...
"In fact, the processes by which the human mind achieved its present stage of complexity and its particular form of innate organisation are a total mystery, as much so as the analogous questions about the physical or mental organisation of any other complex organism. It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to "natural selection," so long as we realise that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena. The problem of accounting for evolutionary development is, in some ways, rather like that of explaining successful abduction. The laws that determine possible successful mutation and the nature of complex organisms are as unknown as the laws that determine the choice of hypotheses."
- Noam Chomsky
chronology: Achilles, agreed completely. Linguistics folks are brilliant at placing the pieces of language puzzle together. But like you say they cannot agree on how languages began.
A real breakthrough for them came when they noticed that there seems to have been a universal original language amongst all people. This language was smothered by at least a dozen languages that simply appeared overnight.
Personally I believe the the account of Babel. There are also none biblical sources, I agree very vague, of a period of chaos in the distant past. Just what happened to the human race back then is anyone's guess.
The deal-breaker for proving that languages were created in some kind of crisis event came when experts pointed out all the world's languages began becoming less complex from the moment they were first recognised in history. English today is way more simple and basic than it was hundreds of years ago. We just don't know what the original foundation languages were that appeared in what we call Iraq today.
Languages must be caused by something outside of Humans.
And there must be more then one factor involved.
Which means other things can speak.
AchillesSinatra: So you're gonna be like the religious loonie who claims when Jesus said "hate" he meant "love"?
Mr Chomsky's remarks seem pellucid to me
chronology: Achilles. The irony of Mr Chomsky is that if he had his carear in the USSR no one would have heard of the Guy. But America has allowed a fulfilling life for the Guy, most praised by people who loved the USSR and hate America. Somewhere there is a logic in all that.