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Scientist’s Operating Manual – Introduction

If you open any number of science textbooks, introductions to the philosophy of science, or books that attack pseudoscience, you will find a discussion of What The Scientific Method Is. For it is assumed from the start that either there is a scientific method, or that there is not and that this causes severe trouble for demarcating between science and non-science, depending on the aim of the writers. Few scientists seem to have such trouble, unless you ask them to elaborate the method they use, at which point you will usually get a laundry list of techniques used for that particular science, or some simple diagram that shows the workflow of a scientist from observation to theory, or perhaps the other way.

Even such terms as “theory” are unclear. The term seems to mean everything from a series of mathematical equations to any kind of general and abstract thinking about a topic, including literature, politics and economics. A term so debased that it can effectively refer to anything is hardly useful. So we appear to have two alternatives here: either we can insist there is a proper way to use these terms, and a proper way to do science, or we can throw our hands in the air and say, “Anything can be called science! And science is no different to any ideology or religion!”

Neither of these alternatives is true. There is real science and faux science, and there is a difference between them. It just happens that science is more complex than the textbooks tell you, and more interesting as a result. There is no single scientific method, there are many, but like a family portrait, they all have a resemblance, and there are clearly some that have been adopted from outside the family tree.

The philosopher Paul K. Feyerabend once wrote:

The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’. [The final chapter of Against Method, 1975]

People sometimes think Feyerabend was asserting that there is no method in science, and that anarchy should rule, and sometimes he sounded like that, but instead we should take from his argument that there is no single method. It does not follow there is no method at all. And there is a higher order method here: trial and error of methods. If we try out a method (say, using astrology to predict chemistry experiments) and it fails, I think Feyerabend would have been perfectly happy to say, “See? We tried it out and it failed. We have made some progress.” If he would not have done so, we ought to anyway.

So when a non-scientist approaches scientific reasoning, it pays for them to know how science is done and why, and if they aren’t about to undertake a scientific education, or worse, a philosophy of science education, then they don’t want to have to deal with these complexities and nuances. This book will be written for them. We aim to provide simple summary explanations of what science does, and justify those practices. Why, for example, do medical researchers use double blind methods? Why do psychologists test null hypotheses? Why are error bars used? How do physicists come up with these increasingly complex and odd theories? And should they do this?

Science is more like a complex set of roads than a single highway from point A to point B. So long as you drive well, stick to the roads and follow the road rules, how you get to B from A is less important than the fact that you did. We will try to show you some of these roads.

12 Comments

  1. Brian Brian

    assumed from the start they either that?
    ispernicious is perncious?

    Here ends my contribution to your book. 🙂

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Thanks. I’m sure you’ll spot more errors…

  2. This is a great idea for a series. More scientists should know more philosophy. Definitely looking forward to future posts!

  3. The one universal “method” of science is that, once you drive well, stick to the roads and follow the road rules, you then have to convince your fellow scientists that you did so.

  4. bob koepp bob koepp

    I agree with your reading of Feyerabend as a sort of methodological pluralist. Under his influence, I came to view “scientific method” as a collection of finite procedures for arriving at a “best guess” about the way the world is.

  5. strangetruther strangetruther

    Parts of the above are excellent. However the general impression that everything is up for grabs because nothing is reliable enough to be made into a rule, is damaging. There are plenty of all-too-common errors of philosophy of science made, and this results in bad science, particularly where it’s hard to check how right your theory is.
    Though no rules in this field are certain, rules are useful and necessary.
    The idea that science is about reaching the best guess is fine. The idea of following the roads you know may be related, and may be a good idea. For some reason, I also find philosophy easiest to trust the better it’s written, and I feel that’s a good rule.

    We should accept that rules are always imperfect but the search for good rules must go on. Knowledge might always be definable in terms of rules, even though they may be very complex and/or uncertain. Transferring learned knowledge between people does however require rules that can be written and understood. Science does work, philosophy of science is useful, and it can be vastly improved by a dozen or two useful rules, which I am happy to provide.

  6. bob koepp bob koepp

    strangtruther – Yes, we need rules, and knowledge transfer (at least of the symbolic sort) requires that we be able to “write and understand” the rules. I think the notion of “finite procedures” fits the bill. It also means that the rules in question can be applied by mere humans.

  7. I generally agree with your post. I would add that there is often significant creativity involved in science – that should connect it to your recent creativity post.

  8. Great stuff. I think this may be a great resource for students coming into philosophy of science.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      So write something for it!

      • I would, except for the little matter of finishing my book. Once I’ve done that we can talk about it.

  9. Charlie Charlie

    If we “put to the test” doing science without rationality, you know, just to mix things up, how do you tell whether it works better or worse without using rationality? That is, without assuming the same axioms that can prove that using evidence is the way to go?

    Well, you could do it by using that new science’s own internal logic. But this is far too inclusive. A definition that includes a blank slate with “this is science” written on it is not a useful definition. It’s more likely that the thought is that we should test different methods by the predictions they make, which assumes that evidence is useful, which gives us our normal science right back.

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