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“The” Scientific Method

by Michael Nielsen on October 15, 2007

Cosma Shalizi ponders the Scientific Method and the Philosophy of Science:

Philosophy of science these days seems largely concerned with questions of method, justification and reliability — what do scientists do (and are they all doing the same thing? are they doing what they think they’re doing?), and does it work, and if so why, and what exactly does it produce? There are other issues, too, like, do scientific theories really tell us about the world, or just give us tools for making predictions (and is there a difference there?). The whole reductionism—emergence squabble falls under this discipline, too. But (so far as an outsider can judge), method is where most of the debate is these days.

Of course, most scientists proceed in serene indifference to debates in methodology, and indeed all other aspects of the philosophy of science. What Medawar wrote thirty years ago and more is still true today:

If the purpose of scientific methodology is to prescribe or expound a system of enquiry or even a code of practice for scientific behavior, then scientists seem to be able to get on very well without it. Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those who have not. Of what other branch of learning can it be said that it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned?

(Actually, has anyone done a controlled study of that point?) One of the things a good methodology should do is, therefore, either explain why scientists don’t have to know it.

An observation I find fascinating is that scientists employ very different norms when evaluating what it means to know something in their area of expertise versus what they know about doing science. An experimental physicist may have extremely rigorous standards of what it means to determine something experimentally, and a far more seat-of-the-pants means of evaluating knowledge about what it means to be a good experimental physicist. And, of course, they apply different standards again to everyday knowledge.

Cosma continues a little later:

Now of course working scientists do employ lots of different methods, which are of varying quality. The same is true of all learned professions, and it is probably also true that most professionals (lawyers, architects, doctors) pay no heed to foundational debates about what they are doing. Instead methods seem to breed within the profession — this technique is unreliable under these circumstances, that procedure works better than the old one, etc. — without, as it were, the benefit of philosophical clergy.

Feyerabend had a nice term for this – “anything goes”. I don’t think he meant this literally. Rather, he meant that method was something that scientists invented on a case-by-case basis, with formal methodology being only a heuristic guide, not gospel.

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  1. Chris W. permalink

    Typo alert in last paragraph — former methodology

    ==> “formal” ?

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Yup! Fixed.

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