Scientific Method Evolves
The so-called “scientific method” (if there is such a thing) has undergone dramatic changes throughout history, but there is one constant that can be relied upon: the myth of scientism.
Scientism is the belief that the “scientific method” is a disinterested formula that, provided a bias-free scientist follows the steps, is guaranteed to lead to knowledge that progresses toward understanding of nature that invariably improves over time. Philosophers of science, historians of science and sociologists of science know that this simplistic description is a myth. On the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions this year, and the “Science Wars” that ensued in the decades following its publication in 1962, one would think that scientism went out with logical positivism and vinyl records, but some reporters remain stuck in that groove. A recent example is found on Live Science, where Robert Roy Britt and and Kim Ann Zimmermann provided a definition straight out of the 1950s:
Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work. It is derived from the Latin word “scientia,” which translates to knowledge. Unlike the arts, science aims for measurable results through testing and analysis. Science is based on fact, not opinion or preferences. The process of science is designed to challenge ideas through research. It is not meant to prove theories, but rule out alternative explanations until a likely conclusion is reached.
This definition, followed by a step-by-step “recipe” for the Scientific Method, reveals none of the complexities of real-world science. For instance, not all scientists follow this method, if indeed any do. Different fields of science use different methods. It overlooks tacit knowledge, hunches and social pressures that short-circuit the method. It mentions nothing of the scientific culture or consensus, Kuhn’s paradigms and scientific revolutions. It conflates scientific discovery with scientific understanding, yet it distinguishes facts from theories as if facts cannot be theory-laden. It ignores profound differences between operational sciences (which can be replicated) and origins sciences (which cannot, but rely on inference). And it creates an either-or fallacy that segregates “science” from all other forms of inquiry, some of which are not only just as systematic and logical, but may be even more measurable, reliable, and amenable to knowledge. Those are just a few of the questions that arise from the Live Science article.
Even the article’s ending section, “brief history of science,” overlooks the fact that what was considered “knowledge” in the past is often considered foolishness today. Almost everything that was believed about the universe, the earth and life back in 1900 has been debunked. We have no guarantee, therefore, that scientists of the future will not look on today’s “scientific” beliefs as foolishness. The phrase “now we know” is often the prelude to collapse (for an interesting example from geology, read a quote posted by Uncommon Descent).
Britt and Zimmermann also neglected to address how scientific knowledge is manufactured. There was nothing about peer review, for instance. Yet even Nature this past week acknowledged that a revolution is underway in peer review with new internet resources that may render traditional print journals obsolete. On June 12, Richard van Noorden explored some of the radical new initiatives like PeerJ (an outgrowth of the inventors of PLoS ONE) that will allow scientists to pay one price for unlimited online publishing. Notice his explosive metaphor:
PeerJ is just one of a flurry of experiments, encouraged in part by the gathering momentum of open access, that might shape the future of research publishing. “We are seeing a Cambrian explosion of experiments with new publishing models. It’s going to be an interesting period for the next few years,” says Binfield.
The metaphor implies no clear connection between the old way and several radical new ways of publication. This example shows that one aspect of the “scientific method,” peer review, is undergoing a dramatic change before our eyes after decades — even centuries — of standard operating procedure.
Another example from Nature confesses that there may be limits to our understanding. Climate change certainly looms large in scientific discussions these days. Just as the latest global climate change conference is concluding in Rio, Maslin and Austin said in Nature June 14 (486, pp. 183–184, doi:10.1038/486183a) that climate models may have reached their limits:
For the fifth major assessment of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be released next year, climate scientists face a serious public-image problem. The climate models they are now working with, which make use of significant improvements in our understanding of complex climate processes, are likely to produce wider rather than smaller ranges of uncertainty in their predictions. To the public and to policymakers, this will look as though the scientific understanding of climate change is becoming less, rather than more, clear….
…. Why do models have a limited capability to predict the future? First of all, they are not reality. This is perhaps an obvious point, but it is regularly ignored. By their very nature, models cannot capture all the factors involved in a natural system, and those that they do capture are often incompletely understood. Science historian Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego, and her colleagues have argued convincingly that this makes climate models impossible to truly verify or validate.
Surprisingly, they stated that ignorance is no reason for inaction:
Scientists need to decide how to explain this effect. Above all, the public and policymakers need to be made to understand that climate models may have reached their limit. They must stop waiting for further certainty or persuasion, and simply act.
This statement appears to be naked advocacy for political action in spite of scientific understanding. Regardless of one’s views on human-caused global warming, the quote illustrates powerful influences between politics and science. It also reveals that scientists, like other fallible human beings, are not necessarily bias-free, but are subject to motivations and collective beliefs.
Update 6/19/2012: Pallab Ghosh, writing for the BBC News, reported on the growing trend toward open-access journals on the internet, away from traditional subscription-based journals. One of the arguments in favor of open access is that if the public is paying for the research, they ought to be able to read about it. Some scientists are strongly in favor of the movement, seeing it as the democratization of science. “Critics have argued that commercial publishers have made excessive profits from scientific research that has been paid for from public money,” Ghosh wrote. “Critics also say that denying access to publicly-funded research is immoral.” One significant upshot of the trend is that leading journal editors will have less veto power over what gets published, and less control over what kind of research is deemed significant.
Don’t ever be fooled into assuming that scientists, and especially science reporters, have been educated out of scientism. Many scientists never took a philosophy of science course. Some of them, influenced by their science professors, were trained to distrust philosophers of science. But the question “What is science?” is not a question of science. It is a question of philosophy about science. Scientists therefore, operating within the scientific culture, are the least qualified to answer the question.
It’s time to suggest again two Teaching Company lecture series that explore in detail the philosophical issues of the “scientific method.” Here are links to them. Take note that the courses periodically go on sale.
Notice that neither professors are friendly to intelligent design; they both accept Darwinian evolution. But after listening to them explain the many difficulties in verifying even the simplest scientific concepts, and hearing about the welter of contradictory opinions about what science is, and how misguided previous “now we know” claims have been, no reader of Creation-Evolution Headlines should remain vulnerable to the fallacy of scientism.