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.