Is there a scientific method? Physics, Biology and Beyond

by Jimdrix_Hendri1 min read5th Dec 20194 comments



Among the general public and, frequently, in the educated media, one comes across naïve and uncritical praise for the “scientific method”. Often, accusation of violating the “method” is wielded to denigrate the viewpoint of a political opponent who supposedly offended against some prestigious, generally accepted norm of reasoning. I want to question the cogency of these arguments. My point is there is no agreed scientific method, as different sciences apply very different criteria in deciding what counts as valid explanation.

The paradigm approach for life scientists, for instance, begins by subjecting a phenomenon of interest to patient and thoroughgoing observation. They carefully describe key features, categorise functional and structural commonalities, then organise the material into a cladogram of some sort, after which they feel satisfied claiming they understand the phenomenon. I come across this approach again and again in Aristotle, who started his intellectual adventure as a zoologist.

For a physical scientist a biologist’s explanation is unconvincing. The physical sciences, with its strong emphasis on aetiology and relentless reductionism, raises questions not taken up in biology. Physicist are uncomfortable saying they know something until they can identify a small number of (ideally a single) exogenic factor/s giving rise to almost all the characteristics.

I need to emphasise that these are generalisable templates for explanation that are found outside of physics and biology. Thus, from the point of view of exogency, Jared Diamond’s explanation for the early ascendancy of western Eurasia as the result of geographical advantages (prevalence of domesticable animals and highly nutritious plants, etc.) is deeply satisfying to a physicist, since further pursuit for a cause moves the discussion outside the original domain of from human differences into geography. Compare this with a statement like: 'France’s preference for a strong centralised government is a natural continuation of the same policies having been implemented in the Roman Empire'. The statement passes the “holds water test”, but it is less satisfying, since it begs the question as to why Rome was like that. I.e., we are still in the realm of politics.

Explanations that are prefaced with “there are many reasons why ..” occur very frequently in biology are equally unsatisfying against the standards applied in physics. We also find cases where the physics template has been successfully applied within biology. The virulent arguments between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould is (apart from some differences over political agenda) largely about differences a physics and biological view of evolution.

The physics template has enormously superior explanatory power, since its strong theoretical orientation enables predictions over a wide range of phenomena. This fact has not gone unnoticed in other disciplines (especially economics) where there continued, mostly unsatisfactory attempts to achieve the same deep theoretical understanding.

I’ve concentrated on the templates applying in the physical and life sciences, but there is a further paradigm for explanation found chiefly in the so-called soft or social sciences (although you meet it sometimes in the life sciences as well). These are disciplines that rely nearly exclusively on empirical results, since theory is either undeveloped or not trustworthy. A typical social science explanation is that a double-blind test of hypothesis X carried out over a population characterised by Y produced a positive outcome with a p-value 90%. This amounts to saying: given a certain input, we can anticipate a certain output most of the time. And we may even have some concepts that guided us in designing the experiment. But we are far from confident of its general applicability.


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But don't people who say "this violates..." already know this? "This violates" in biology is a biology-styled violation, in physics it is physics-styled, etc. When a physicist begins to ponder a biological problem, he often starts with heavy assumptions, but biologists don't tell him he's wrong to do it. (Even when they itch to say it, it's still not polite.)

But this is not what is done. Instead, journalists write, pretty much universally, about "the scientific method", which is supposed to be an iterative procedure made up of observation, hypothesising and testing. This raises two questions:

1) Why don't journalists instead write about the life or physical or social science method? I suppose this is one of the widespread misunderstandings about science. There is also a gross public misperception about the validity that can be to attribute to scientific results. It is true that some of these points are subject to disagreement among philosophers of science, but I think all would agree that the public notions, upheld by journalists, is lazy, naive and incorrect.

2) You could also say, Ok, so there are multiple approaches taken in the various scientific disciplines. But what is wrong with iterative application of observation, hypothesising and testing as a truth finding method? Well, I'd argue, this isn't a method at all. Instead it's a description. I.e., it is not an approach that can be set into operation to uncover the truth.

In case that is confusing, I'll make the point in another way. Let's say you are interviewing the manager of a sports team and you ask him what is his strategy for defeating another team. Suppose he were to answer: "My strategy is to outscore my opponent". This is not a strategy at all. It is merely a restatement of the victory condition.

I agree that it is sloppy of journalists. I just have not read any such piece in a while and so I have to ask - are they wrong, about the violating? Most of the time? It might be a gross oversimplification, but is it untrue?

You make a good point, namely that my article would be improved with an example. I don't have one at hand, although I think this behaviour comes up rather frequently in attacks on climate change deniers. I'll see what I can do to find an example.

Perhaps I should write an article about the more general problem of journalists and politicians selectively using specious, (often pseudo-) scientific claims to attack their opponents? This originates mostly from the left. The right has long since accepted the idea that science arguments will always be against them, and whenever they hear "the scientific method.." they know they are about to be knocked in the head, and mentially prepare some ad hominem attack against some straw man figure of a scientist.

I don't doubt the right could summon the intellectual resources to challenge instances of sciencism. Only it would all go over the heads of the average voter. Such is the level of and the motivating forces behind our political discourse.

Sometimes I feel sympathy for Plato's critique of democracy.