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.