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No Scientific Method, They Say

Several people have sent this article along, and since there’s not a lot of news so far today, I thought I’d go into it a bit. The title is eye-catching: “There Is No Scientific Method”, but that contention is probably the least objectionable part of the whole thing. Physicist Chad Orzel thought so – his problem was the way the piece wound up so suddenly, with a rushed, shoulder-shrugging conclusion (which took me by surprise as well).

The author, James Blachowicz (emeritus philosophy professor at Loyola-Chicago) is mainly making the point that there is, in his view, nothing special or magical about what we call the “scientific method”. His example is a lecture by Stephen Spender who described how he wrote a poem, which reminded Blachowicz of the phases of a scientific investigation. “Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.”

Up to a point, he’s right. (Chad Orzel has written at length in his book Eureka about scientific thinking in everyday life, so he’s on board with that assertion, too). I have no problem with that, but where I part company with Blachowicz’s example is that scientific thinking and methods are generally applied to real objects. He goes on about (for example) trying to define “courage” in a Socratic way, but the key difference between that and science is that courage is a word that we’ve come up with to describe a mental state or mode of human behavior, and in the end that’s a very different thing than a rock, a paramecium, or a planetary nebula. Those last three things exist outside our terms for them or our ideas about them. We can disagree about what courage is or whether a given person has displayed it; we cannot disagree in the same way about a rock. What one of us might call courage another might call foolhardiness (the ancient Greeks tried to distinguish these two, as in the case of Aristodemus of Sparta). Some might end up thinking about it in the same way that Falstaff thought about the related concept of honor (“Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it.”)

There is, and can be, no such thing as a “courageometer”, because it is not something that can be measured. Nor can we measure the worth of a poem, composed by whatever means. Blachowicz, in his hasty wrap-up, tries (in my view) to paper over these differences:

If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.

When he says “deals with highly quantified variables”, I think he really is saying “deals with real objects”, but doesn’t want to say it (or think it) in those terms. It is, after all, real phenomena and real objects that can be quantified. (Empiricism must be a dirty concept, I suppose, but it’s always been good to me). But ignoring it leads Blachowicz to oddities like this:

Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed. While Galileo’s law prescribes that the trajectory of a projectile like a cannonball follows a parabolic path, the true path deviates from a parabola, mostly because of air resistance. That is, a second, separate causal element must be accounted for. And so we add the ad hoc exception “except when resisted by air.”

This is enough. There is much more to a theory of inquiry, of course, that could cover forms as disparate as poetry and science.

Calling air resistance just an “ad hoc exception” treats it, to me, as some sort of philosophical concept. But the air molecules banging into the real cannonball are themselves real objects, and I find it weird to treat them as some sort of hand-waving fudge factor that was wedged in to make Galileo’s theory fit the observations. We can, in fact, measure that air resistance and say how it varies with air pressure, humidity, and other factors and why. The way they make the cannonball fall short are through the same mechanisms that you would find underwater or in low Earth orbit, and the energy imparted to those molecules, and the heat generated, can be precisely described. Try that with a poem, or with a definition of courage. This treatment of words and of objects as identical, and subject to identical manipulations, is just bizarre. Objects are what they are no matter what we call them.

Another oddity of the Blachowicz article is how he breezes past the idea of systematic investigation as if it’s always been a feature of human thought. But David Wooton shows just the opposite in his book The Invention of Science (reviewed here): the idea of isolating variables and working through them in stepwise fashion is a relatively recent invention. The ancient Greeks didn’t really do it; no one did, except here and there in very limited fashion, and in ways that weren’t followed up. (All sorts of other ways of arriving at knowledge were considered to be just as valid, or more so, with results that seem bizarre to modern sensibilities). Wooton himself makes a point out of how historians of science don’t seem to realize this, and assume that experimentation, in its modern sense, has always been with us. But that isn’t so, and it seems clear that Blachowicz doesn’t realize this, and takes scientific modes of thinking as default human behaviors just because that’s how they appear today. Not so.

So to sum up my own views: there is such a thing as the scientific method (although I’d be the last to claim that it follows the checklists that you see in middle-school textbooks). And it’s not quite the same as writing a poem, or coming up with a definition of courage, because in the end it deals with physical objects and measurable phenomena. And it’s not something that we’ve always known how to do, in the modern sense, either, although far less useful approximations of it have been around for a long time. Oh, and ideas aren’t the same as objects, and if you pretend that they are, you’ll end up saying weird stuff in the New York Times.

49 comments on “No Scientific Method, They Say”

  1. roger says:

    “…how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?”
    Because of the demand for repeatability across people, space, and time.

  2. Radiochemist says:

    I am so pleased you’ve written about this! it made me so cross ergh!

  3. Curious Wavefunction says:

    It’s also interesting to contrast this viewpoint with that of Paul Feyerabend who basically said that science is an “anarchic enterprise”. Feyerabend’s claim is controversial but there’s a shred of truth in it, and what he was really doing was to push back against the belief that most important scientific discoveries can be neatly fit into the generate hypothesis-do experiment (gather data)-create theory mold. He alluded to the many times that blind alleys and serendipity played a role in scientific discovery; these cases don’t really fit the standard narrative. But yes, there is indeed a scientific method, although it often doesn’t work as well as we would like it to.

  4. Per-Ola Norrby says:

    Regarding the comment about air resistance, the same concept is beautifully exemplified by Asimov in “The relativity of wrong”, should be required reading in school: http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

    1. Marya Lieberman says:

      Thanks for providing this link Per-Ola. Beautiful piece of writing.

  5. Hrolf Earthstar says:

    Yes, it could have been hoped that a philosopher would have been more careful about distinctions, especially between ad hoc explanations and causal explanations that incorporate previously unincorporated data.

    But it could also be hoped that you would be more careful throwing around words like “real”. I think and I hope that what you mean is that it is “material” phenomena and “material” objects that can be quantified.

    Scientific conclusions themselves, as with any conclusion that follows logically from true premises, are “real” but not “material”. When a scientist forms a mental model of the universe, and then confirms it in experiment, there cannot be any material causal relationship between the specific mental model and the universe as a whole. The mental model does not cause the universe and the universe does not deterministically cause the mental model. But there must be some form of correspondence between the two, or there are no scientific conclusions, in which case what’s the point?

    1. Scandium says:

      Yes, I was going to say something about that terminology, too. I think by ‘real objects’ Derek means what is measurable/observable but quite often that has nothing to do with objects but measurable changes or perceptions. Also I think the descriptor ‘real’ is unnecessary as that would imply that everything else which is not currently measurable/observable or understandable is not real which clearly makes no sense.

  6. ChemE From the Basement says:

    Thank you for discussing this article, and really taking the time to understand and discuss the issues in it. I saw it yesterday in the times and it left me beating my head against the bench. To the point of both Curious Wavefunction and Derek, when I think about it, the key to the scientific method is not inherently the hypothesis & run test mold, but is really that we run our tests against reality, and try to clearly identify the factor (i.e. gravity vs. air resistance on a projectile) we are seeing the effect of. Plenty of serendipity and hey why did that happen in my experiences.

  7. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    Something I found especially offensive was his concluding statement that the scientific method “is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.”

    This is like saying that a working musician has no business talking about music theory, or that a poet has no business talking about literary criticism.

    1. Tim Joule says:

      Many musicians, even many great ones, are entirely ignorant of music theory. Same for scientists and philosophy of science. I’m trained as a chemist and I certainly didn’t learn any philosophy of science beyond the overly simplistic scientfic method everyone learns in elementary school. Unless you’ve actually studied it, and studied philosophy in general to get a grasp of epistimology (something Derek Lowe trips up on in this post) you can’t intelligently talk about it.

  8. MoMo says:

    “Those that can’t do Science can only write about it”
    -MoMo summer 2016

  9. bacillus says:

    I don’t remember using good old fashioned Popperian falsifiabilty during my English Lit classes!

    1. NJBiologist says:

      One of my history professors was a big proponent of it. The reasoning was generally something like this: “I think this decision was made by field officers. So I’m going to go to division HQ archives and see if they have records of the decision. If they do, I have to throw out my theory.” It didn’t hurt that the guy’s specialty was WWII German history, so his subjects were meticulous recordkeepers–but I think this reasoning isn’t unique to him.

      1. Barbara Piper says:

        Sorry to be late to this discussion, but you reminded me that there is a long-standing Popperian tradition in anthropology we (humorously) call “Not So In Bongo-Bongoland.” Claims that this or that trait of human culture or society is universal are tested against what happens in “Bongo-Bongoland,” and if the Bongo-Bongo don’t do, or have it, or believe it, we reject the universality of the proposed trait, and jokingly say, “ah, but not so in…”

        A classic example is Margaret Mead’s work in Samoa in the 1920s, testing the hypothesis that adolescence has universal features. Whatever you think of the quality of her research, it was an effort to apply a Popperian scientific method to testing a hypothesis. A more recent example, also controversial, is Daniel Everett’s claim that the Piraha language of Brazil lacks recursion, which Chomksy hypothesized is a universal feature of language — another “Not So In Bongo-Bongoland.”

  10. Anon says:

    And the point/usefulness of this is what, exactly? A lesson in semantics? Or is it just a ramble by someone who prefers thinking than doing, who has run out of things to think about?

    1. Hap says:

      If you don’t understand the contingency of scientific results, then it’s kind of hard to understand what they mean when they do appear, what to do when subsequent data changes their results, or what policies you should advocate based on said results. That seems sort of important in an election year, no?

  11. 1 = 1 says:

    The scientific method is the application of systematic inquiry to the determination of empirical absolutes. While Blachowicz and I may disagree on the value and ‘truth’ of his essay (I’m sure that philosophers could produce innumerable essays on this conflict, though I expect little agreement between their analyses), we will both be forced to agree that the table I flipped after reading it accelerated downward at 9.81 m/s before colliding with the floor. This is an unequivocal truth that may be confirmed by any scientist or philosopher. Application the scientific method requires the acceptance of a predictable world indifferent to human expectations, and it is inquiry within this intellectual framework that is the principle divergence between scientific investigation and philosophical navel-gazing.

  12. Isidore says:

    “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.” – William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

  13. Phil says:

    There are good papers in academic journals that would be disqualified from a grade school science fair for not having a clearly stated hypothesis.

    Not knowing what’s going to happen is an excellent reason to do an experiment!

    1. TX raven says:

      Phil,

      Yes, as long as someone else is paying for it…
      You need to have something… call it a hunch, hypothesis, gut feeling, whatever…

  14. cp says:

    “I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree.”
    G. E. Moore in reference to the Ph.D. thesis of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    Wittgenstein is the Woodward of modern philosophy (the “analytic” school). Unfortunately, while both were apparently very bright people, Wittgenstein’s work is totally uninterpretable, even to those in the fold.

    Can you imagine presenting your thesis, seeing your committee shake their heads and shrug, and then saying “well gosh, I can’t understand any of this, you must be a genius!”

    Only in philosophy.

    1. Cato the Elder says:

      Speaking of Woodward–check out this article if you’ve got access to ACIE:

      “Woodward’s Words: Elegant and Commanding”
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.201600811/full

      While certainly not uninterpretable, he definitely had his own style!

    2. Curious Wavefunction says:

      Freeman Dyson has said that Wittgenstein was a charlatan, dressing up his thoughts in fancy and impenetrable words and impressing people based on the impenetrability rather than any substance, and by cultivating a mysterious and tortured persona. I think it’s absurd to call someone a genius simply based on the fact that you don’t understand what they have written.

      1. cancer_man says:

        David Deutch also has harsh words:

        “Then Wittgenstein embraced the implication and declared all philosophy, including his own, to be meaningless. He advocated remaining silent about philosophical problems, and, although he never attempted to live up to that aspiration, he was hailed by many as one of the greatest geniuses of the twentieth century. One might have thought that this would be the nadir of philosophical thinking but unfortunately there were greater depths to plumb.”

  15. Ernesto (Palo) says:

    As bacillus says, all similarities die when you consider a key aspect of the scientific method, falsifiability: in any hypothesis, there should be an answer to your question that would undermine the truth and/or usefulness. There’s no falsifiability of a poem.

  16. puddintame says:

    He needs to read “Newton’s Giant Flaming Laser Sword”

  17. Li Zhi says:

    I expected this to go another way. I’ve yet to see an acceptable definition of “the Scientific Method”. I don’t believe there is one. Or more precisely, my best understanding of scientific method is that (some) core components of it are context sensitive (malleable). Often the first question in debate about SM is in the context of a lone investigator. Can a lone investigator (ie last man on Earth) do science? Is the SM he uses identical to the SM used by CERN’s CMS group (whose 1766 authors co-‘wrote’ their 2012 paper on the Higgs Boson)? Did Einstein “do” science? And if String Theory is not (and may never be) empirical, then how is it that so many believe it is “science”? I’ll also point out [since I, (being far too gullible), bought into it for many years] that ‘falsifiability” fails if the hypothesis under test is true (you can’t create an experiment which can falsify a “Truth”.(such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, eg the impossibility of having a perpetual motion machine)] Blachowicz’s article is full of straw man arguments and red herring. Poems may be created as he describes but I’d guess most are not. His claim that poetry is to be understood at some “articulate” level is particularly egregious. I’m not of a history buff to get much into his claims about Kepler, but his take seems completely contrafactual. The ‘ad hoc’ approach he denies is (it seems to me) precisely what ‘circles within circles’ is all about (and was “the established science” prior to Kepler’s ellipses). That he dramatically improved on that by simplifying it has nothing to do with whether he was, and his forebears were not, using the scientific method, I think. So much for ad hoc (speaking of ad hoc, neutrino masses are ad hoc additions to the Standard Model – so I guess he’d deny the Standard Model of Particle Physics to be a result of the SM??). Finally, a claim’s been made that there is not (and can not be) a courage-o-meter. I dispute this. I admit that there are different kinds of courage, from facing down a dangerous aggressor to embezzlement of the local church donations, but I be surprised if some types (especially the fast (acute) responses) aren’t quantifiable. I should also point out the obvious; that inaction can be as courageous as action, depending on context. The NYT piece is so flawed in so many different ways, that as Derek said, it must have been a slow news day…hey, how about the Nature July 7 report on sepsis?

  18. cynical1 says:

    “I am so stupid that I cannot understand philosophy; the antithesis of this is that philosophy is so clever that it cannot comprehend my stupidity. These antitheses are mediated in a higher unity; in our common stupidity.”

    Soren Kierkegaard

  19. Michael Olson says:

    I just want to know if it’s OK to eat butter!

    1. DanielT says:

      Yes.

      1. Dr CNS says:

        just don’t exaggerate.

  20. bacillus says:

    “Every intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the
    privilege and the opportunity of studying. In return, he owes it to
    his fellow men (or ‘to society’) to represent the results of his study
    as simply, clearly and modestly as he can. The worst thing that
    intellectuals can do – the cardinal sin – is to try to set themselves
    up as great prophets vis-à-vis their fellow men and to impress
    them with puzzling philosophies. Anyone who cannot speak
    simply and clearly should say nothing and continue to work until
    he can do so” Karl Popper.

    1. Nick K says:

      What a wonderful quote! It’s a great shame that the post-modernists and critical-theory bunch in academia don’t know it.

  21. sgcox says:

    Michael,
    Yes, it is is OK in moderate quantities if you keep a “balanced diet”.
    Purely scientific conclusion, based on the millennia of observations that you will die anyway and inside of +/- five years (with a good sigma) of the cohort which followed the optimal feeding regime.

  22. Garrett Wollman says:

    The dispute that I was expecting and didn’t see here would be over the implicit claim that there is a, unitary, Scientific Method. There are actually multiple scientific methods, defined by the norms of each discipline in the scientific enterprise. In Computer Science, my field, we prove things: either in the formal sense, as is done by theoreticians, or by construction — actually building real systems. In the historical sciences (paleontology, archaeology, much of geology), there are no experiments possible other than “natural” ones. In the observational sciences (like astronomy and cosmology), they build models that they hope characterize processes that no human will ever observe; there may be many models that predict the reality we can observe and no way to distinguish among them as to which one is correct.

    People doing chemistry are lucky to have both well-developed theories of most of the phenomena they are interested in, and the ability to test those theories experimentally — whether by making a substance and testing its physical properties, or, as in Derek’s job, making a substance and running biological experiments to see whether it does the thing it was supposed to do.

  23. Anonymous Researcher says:

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”
    —Philip K. Dick

  24. MoMo says:

    Great observation GW! We chemists have tangible, measurable material that is in some cases, desirable, making industry for this Great Country of ours. No models or changing theories, at least at the moment.

    So why would you care what a liberal biased and dying newspaper like the NYT has to say on Science?

    Get Back to work chemists of America! Let’s show the other sciences who generates the revenue in this Country! When it’s not going Overseas.

  25. JonasU says:

    I’d like to quote my own personal science hero: “Eksperimentet er naturvidenskabens strenge dommer.” (The experiment is the harsh/strict judge of/in science). -Jens Martin Knudsen, Danish astrophysicist and renowned science popularizer.
    He was hardcore scientific method, and he was basically trying to get the above message through each single time he did public lectures, interviews, etc. Can’t do much more than that, really…

  26. PhDStud says:

    Remember: A day in the lab will save you an hour in the library… and a fortnight’s collected philosophical discussions on whether this reaction might work!

  27. MMK says:

    @Derek: Just as much as this guy doesn’t understand what (and why) scientists do, you haven’t understood what he did as a philosopher. Please, do grab a book on epistemology before writing on this topic.

    1. Old Pump Kicker says:

      If Blachowicz’s essay requires knowledge of epistemology to be appreciated, perhaps he wasn’t writing for the NYT readership, or the scientists who he was criticizing.
      Can you provide any greater detail on Derek’s error than “read a book”? We ignorant are keen to learn.

  28. Some Dude says:

    Interestingly, this whole discussion could not take place in German-speaking countries. Because here, already since decades, literature, history, philosophy etc. have defined themselves as “Wissenschaften”, i.e. sciences, and claim to employ the scientific method.

    I do however agree with Derek that there are things in the natural sciences that cannot be socially constructed away, unlike in the science of gender studies.

  29. Mel says:

    Is it too blithe to reduce SM to the essence of whether a mode of approaching a question allows the answer to be tested, iteratively? It’s the willingness to test that’s always stood out to me as the core of ‘scientific’ thinking, and what separates your investigation of a rock (or a poem…) from the ‘facts’ on the plaques in the creationist museum.

  30. Christophe Verlinde says:

    James Blachowicz made a huge mistake by choosing as a title for his essay “There Is No Scientific Method”. Why? Because large swaths of the American populace are already hostile to anything that reeks of science; they will read the title of the essay without digesting the nuanced contents, and use the title to further erode trust in rational thinking.

  31. Running Comment says:

    – “You think my methods are unsound ?”
    – “I see no method, Sir.”

  32. Doctor Memory says:

    Objects are what they are no matter what we call them.

    You might be surprised (and a little depressed) to find out how few people actually believe this. Nominative determinism (formerly known simply as “magic”) has not ever really gone away.

  33. Peter Shenkin says:

    I said earlier: ‘Something I found especially offensive was his concluding statement that the scientific method “is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.”’

    Others responded that they didn’t learn anything about “scientific method”, falsifiability, etc. in science classes, and that it indeed is up to the philosophers to explain what we are (or perhaps should?) be doing. (FWIW, I don’t want to exclude the philosophers, but I don’t want to be excluded either.)

    I’d just like to point out that only a few weeks ago we had a lively discussion here, among scientists, about whether the science most of us do is really about setting out hypotheses and testing them – which is the basis of the “scientific method”. Rather, the argument, was, many or most scientists spend their lives building tools, which (according to the argument) is a different kind of thing. Developing new synthetic methods was a case in point.

    Regardless of what I think of the dichotomy, the fact that the discussion took place here, means that scientists do care about what the scientific method means and have something to say about it; something, in fact, that goes beyond lip service.

  34. Russell Seitz says:

    This essay seems, empirically speaking, an ornament to the honor of the scientific profession.

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