Do scientists really use the scientific method? - Island of Sanity

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Do scientists really use the scientific method?


I recently came across an article on the web -- There is no single list called "The Scientific Method." It is a myth. -- that claimed that scientists do not really use the scientific method. The author writes:

[T]here is no single "Scientific Method" as such. Scientists don't follow a rigid procedure-list called "The Scientific Method" in their daily work. The procedure-list is a myth spread by K-6 texts. It is an extremely widespread myth, and even some scientists have been taken in by it, but this doesn't make it any more real. ... There are many parts of science that cannot easily be forced into the mold of "hypothesis-experiment-conclusion." Astronomy is not an experimental science, and Paleontologists don't perform Paleontology experiments[,] so is it not proper Science if you study stars or classify extinct creatures? Or, if a scientist has a good idea for designing a brand new kind of measurement instrument (e.g. Newton and the reflecting telescope)[,] that certainly is "doing science." ... Another example: great discoveries often come about when scientists notice anomalies. They see something inexplicable during older research, and that triggers some new research. Or sometimes they notice something weird out in Nature; something not covered by modern theory. Isaac Asimov said it well: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny...' "

While there is truth in this article, ultimately I must disagree.

The truth is this: Of course real scientists do not routinely follow a textbook application of the Scientific Method.

In every profession, there are textbook descriptions of how to do the job. These are almost always rigid, step-by-step procedures. We call them "textbook methods" because they are normally found in textbooks, that is, books intended to teach the beginner what this job is all about. As such, they have to be systematic. They have to take the student through all the steps necessary to do the job -- or at least the normal case -- in detail.

The wise student will begin by following the steps rigidly. But as he masters the art, he will eventually learn when it is safe or positively beneficial to deviate from the textbook approach. He will realize that in this particular case, step 4 is so trivial and obvious that there is no point even mentioning it -- just do the three seconds of work and move on. Or step 6 is totally irrelevant and can be skipped. Or that maybe in this particular case we should do step 5 before we do step 2. And so on.

I'm a software engineer by profession. I recently wrote a book on how to design databases. Like any "how to" book, it gives step-by-step procedures for doing the job. Does this mean that in my daily work, I flip open a book and go through the steps one by one? Of course not. I know when to skip steps or do them out of order. I understand the rules and the reasons for the rules, so I don't carefully review everything I do for conformity with the letter of the law. To the expert, the rules are a set of guidelines to be applied intelligently in each situation.

When you

Likewise, real scientists do not normally make a checklist of the steps in the Scientific Method. They do not say, Okay, today I am going to work on formulating a hypothesis. Done? Okay, check off the box. Etc. But that doesn't mean that they aren't using the Scientific Method. It means that they are using their creativity and intelligence to apply it to each situation.

© 2008 by Jay Johansen


Comments

Human Oct 3, 2015

Antony van Leeuwenhoek, looking at the time peidors of your list,Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253),Roger Bacon (1214-1294),Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519),Francis Bacon (1561-1626),Johannes Kepler (1571-1630),Galileo Galilei (1564-1642),William Harvey (1578-1657),Blaise Pascal (1623-1662),Robert Boyle (1627-1691),Isaac Newton (1643-1727),Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778),William Herschel (1738-1822),Samuel Morse (1791-1872),Michael Faraday (1791-1867),Charles Babbage (1791-1871),James Joule (1818-1889),Lord Kelvin (1824-1907),James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879),Gregor Mendel (1822-1884),Louis Pasteur (1822-1895),Joseph Lister (1827-1912), only the last six were born after Darwin (1809-1882), but were essentially contemporaries it was much easier to believe magical things (like religion) before a reasonable explanation for our existence was developed.Of course there are modern religious scientists Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are two prominent examples but all this is missing the real point: science is about testing information to figure out what is true and what isn't.In contrast, religion endorses information from ancient (unverifiable) texts, personal revelation and authorities, all sources which science has taught us are highly prone to err.There is no reason to think the most brilliant scientific minds are immune to the ignorant superstitions of their time and culture (especially given the long tradition of childhood indoctrination), but the more one learns about the world the more difficult it becomes to maintain theistic and scientific descriptions of the world simultaneously. It has also become far more acceptable to express skepticism about religious claims (e.g. no house arrest for suggesting the earth isn't the center of the universe).

gary Oct 9, 2015

"There is no reason to think the most brilliant scientific minds are immune to the ignorant superstitions of their time and culture" Maybe true. But then by the same reasoning, there is no reason to think the most brilliant scientific minds are immune to the latest intellectual fads. I'd hope a scientist would be more discerning than most people. But I'm sure it's true that scientists sometimes believe something just because it's what their parents or teachers told them or what they see on TV, etc. Today their teachers and TV are telling them that Christianity is a bunch of silly superstition and evolution is unquestionable truth, so many of them accept this without analyzing it. If the fact that most scientists of the 19th century accepted Christianity is unimpressive because maybe they just believed what they were told, then the fact that most scientists today accept evolution is equally unimpressive.

carmen phillips Nov 1, 2017

boring

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