The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Discussions on the philosophical foundations, assumptions, and implications of science, including the natural sciences.

Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 19th, 2015, 6:19 pm 

@ Eclogite

You said : "Now you assert these descriptions were normative. (It might be nice if you provided some evidence to support this assertion.) But so what? I am at a loss to see what point you are seeking to make. "

You want evidence? Ok, let's begin with Newton, an easy case to demonstrate. We can move onto the others afterwards if you like. Newton famously offered us his "four rules of scientific reasoning" (easily googled if anyone isn't familiar with them)

What are rules if not normative? "Safety helmets must be worn at all times". Is this a description or a prescription?

Now when might we expect your own evidence for the existence of TSM to be adduced?
Last edited by AllShips on January 19th, 2015, 6:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 19th, 2015, 6:28 pm 

dlorde » January 20th, 2015, 5:47 am wrote:
AllShips » January 19th, 2015, 9:32 pm wrote:
The idea that a single method can encompass all scientific fields and techniques and account for all or most significant scientific breakthroughs in history is naive - but let me know if you find an intelligent person who seriously thinks that is what TSM does.



Good. Can I take it we're agreed that there is no single, unifying Method of science?
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby dlorde on January 19th, 2015, 6:52 pm 

AllShips » January 19th, 2015, 10:28 pm wrote:
dlorde » January 20th, 2015, 5:47 am wrote:
AllShips » January 19th, 2015, 9:32 pm wrote:
The idea that a single method can encompass all scientific fields and techniques and account for all or most significant scientific breakthroughs in history is naive - but let me know if you find an intelligent person who seriously thinks that is what TSM does.


Good. Can I take it we're agreed that there is no single, unifying Method of science?

I don't think there is one - in the specific sense described above. However, I think TSM is a reasonable generalisation of much of scientific endeavour. YMMV ;)
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby Eclogite on January 19th, 2015, 8:11 pm 

AllShips » Mon Jan 19, 2015 5:19 pm wrote:What are rules if not normative? "Safety helmets must be worn at all times". Is this a description or a prescription?

Clearly we are using different definitions of normative. For me it includes a strong element of the ideal. Any definitions I have read of it have the same sense.

The ideal and the practical are different. Your safety helmet statement is not normative. It is an explicit instruction.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby wolfhnd on January 19th, 2015, 8:21 pm 

Proving that the Scientific Method is no different than everyday thinking does not prove it does not exist.

Apparently NO ONE can tell me what the method is. Will somebody please oh please just give me an explicit step-by-step formulation of this method. Why is this apparently so hard to do?


The Scientific Method : Does It Exist? Is as invalid a question as asking if everyday thinking exists. Asking what everyday thinking is on the other hand is a valid question with no easy answer. I provide some examples but they in no way capture the complexity of even the simplest forms of thought.

The tools or technologies that scientist use such as math, logic, classification, etc. have rigid rules and methodologies but the tools do not define the scientific method. The argument that the scientific method does not exist represents an inability to mentally separate the tools from the tool maker. The tool maker evolved to think scientifically.

So no the question cannot be answered because the Method cannot be separated from the agent.

The real philosophy of science question is if there is any other way of thinking that provides valid information about the external world.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 19th, 2015, 9:13 pm 

Eclogite » January 20th, 2015, 8:11 am wrote:
AllShips » Mon Jan 19, 2015 5:19 pm wrote:What are rules if not normative? "Safety helmets must be worn at all times". Is this a description or a prescription?

Clearly we are using different definitions of normative. For me it includes a strong element of the ideal. Any definitions I have read of it have the same sense.

The ideal and the practical are different. Your safety helmet statement is not normative. It is an explicit instruction.




Sigh! Here's what the first online dictionary I consulted gives us:


normative adjective
1. of or relating to a norm, especially an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.
2. tending or attempting to establish such a norm, especially by the prescription of rules:
normative grammar.


Forget hard hats. Perhaps it wasn't the best analogy. Let's dispense with analogies altogether just to be on the safe side, and stick to Newton himself. Here are his rules:



Rule 1: We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.

Rule 2: Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.

Rule 3: The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intensification nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.

Rule 4: In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, not withstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.



Read them carefully. Do you still wish to insist on your position that Newton's four rules of method are descriptive, and not a prescription for how scientists ought to reason? Why is he using words like "must" if he's offering only a description as you suggest?

Now who's being silly?
Last edited by AllShips on January 19th, 2015, 9:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby owleye on January 19th, 2015, 9:27 pm 

AllShips » Mon Jan 19, 2015 3:50 pm wrote:@ Owleye

I'd like you to know that I think you are a man of uncommon learning and wisdom, I've profited immeasurably from studying your posts on this site, and I take your input and advice extremely seriously. As I write I am entertaining the possibility that you're right and my whole take on this topic is misguided. (although I see no one else adopt the slightest trace of intellectual humility)


Well, I'm immensely impressed with your forays into this topic and have a great deal of respect for them. However, as most everyone on this board should be able to recognize, I don't think I'm giving anyone a pass based on that. It's true when I stray into science, the experts are able to show me the errors of my ways. In any case, I sense the same in you.

Allships wrote:With that said, I find the final few sentences of your post above almost unbelievable. The same can be said for mtbturtles's most recent post.

Owleye, you seem to be suggesting (more or less) that perhaps I should back off, because if indeed there is no such thing as TSM, the feelings of certain scientists might be hurt. Mtbturtle, meanwhile, seems to be implying that it might be dangerous if there is no such thing as TSM; this would constitute a victory for the enemies of science.


Well, no. What I'm looking for is greater clarity on your part of what it is that you are expecting us to understand about your question, and why the responders should align themselves with the conditions set forth in that understanding, if only hypothetically, just so it allows them to better respond to them. Instead you seem to require of the responder that they accept something that they feel uncomfortable accepting and you wind up criticizing yhem for that. They waffle. They should accept that they aren't properly responding to the question.

On its face, there's nothing wrong with this, but to think the opposing position is some kind of dogma doesn't help in getting good responses. In reading the posts, nowhere do I get the impression that TSM is dogma. Your target, I think, is not with the responders, but with an opposition that makes certain claims about TSM that might be thought of as dogma. And if that's how you intend the topic to proceed, I understand that there might be two types of response you might get. And I will illuminate it by the following example.

Consider Kant as assuming Newton's Laws were laws of nature. Having accepted this, it gave him quite a number of problems -- for one, the problem of location and relative motion. It took years of thinking on the subject make it possible for such knowledge to be acquired. In hindsight we might wish to think that he would argue from the givenness of that knowledge. That is, it could be laid out in a hypothetical way: He might begin with, "Given Newton, we arrive at Transcendental Idealism in which we come to know certain things, like space and time a priori." But that's now he framed it. Had he been questioning Newton, he might have done so, but, from his standpoint, it was a fact. Thus, we can say Kant was in error seeing as how a better theory came to be accepted by science. However, one should also note that had Kant been around, all that would be necessary to accept it as is, is by making it dependent on something that though previously understood as dogma, to be within the realm of the hypothetical.

Kant is not a scientist of course, but even scientists treated Newton's laws as facts. Indeed, it crept into the culture of day respecting things going on in a clockwork manner.

Allships wrote:Yes, I do see dogma here. Perhaps I should rename the thread "The Scientific Method: My Invisible Friend".

Oh, finally, I'm bewildered once again by your comment to the effect that supposing TSM doesn't exist, then the success of science can only be explained by luck. I don't see at all how this follows. I don't believe there is a Beatles Method or a Bob Dylan Method. Do you? Does that mean their success can only be imputed to luck? Surely not.


Well, we're speaking of scientific success, not artistic success. I think you are getting off track. In any case, yes it was a bit bold of me to suppose no TSM allows us to conclude that it's success was do to luck. However, I suspect it's because you and I are not thinking of the TSM in the name way. I'm not regarding TSM in any dogmatic way, as some unchanging idea that will stand the test of time, something normative in the way you wish us to consider it, at least as universally understood throughout all the sciences. I've indicated it's normative value only in an education setting, and in the younger portion of a student's education. Lots of things are taught, even if when we become a scientist we realize that what we were taught at some young age, may not be well portrayed. They lose their normative appeal.

It may be the case that TSM as promulgated may not be responsible for the success of science. However, loosely considered, I'm thinking that what science does intend is to make itself as objective and empirically based as possible. As far as I'm aware, the structure of science by Kuhn does a good job of documenting what that structure is about, and provides a time-table of sorts that might be thought of as having methodological considerations. One can call what normal science is doing being skeptical of change. But, from my standpoint, this corresponds to what I think is an instrumentalist view of science. They resist because it interferes with their normal science. Acceptance of new theories isn't so much methodological but psychological or sociological. It is a question of consensus of experts which shift in accordance with the development of its value in understanding the data better. Such expert consensus though perhaps not having immediate immediate application, gradually or sharply convinces a growing number of scientists, perhaps trickling into the mainstream. And it's possible to think that the structure so presented might be transformed into a methodology, if only because different scientists come to find themselves as forming part of that structure. They fall into it, so to speak. Some become theorists, some are experimenters. Some are data gatherers. The scientist becomes a part of larger whole. Dividing up roles is an important part of maintaining the objective nature of science. Even so, the TSM as presented in this picture probably isn't the one you've been thinking about.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby neuro on January 23rd, 2015, 6:41 am 

AllShips » January 19th, 2015, 10:32 pm wrote:This is not the question. The question is : Is there a single, common method that unites all the sciences, demarcates them from non-science (or pseudoscience or metaphysics or whatever), and explains the success of science?

I would suggest that if you look at the scientific method as a possble series of norms, then it makes no sense at all to speak about it. It would be an encyclopedia of protocols and methodologies, and, as many have said here, would be something to be looked at as an evolving "corpus" of suggestions based on experience.
The question is : Is it possible to identify a method or form of reasoning that characterizes all, or most of, the significant breakthroughs in scientific history?

This instead is more interesting.
I previously suggested that talking about scientific approach or attitude is much more sensible than talking about scientific "method".

Then, it would be interesting to start by looking at whether there is a "form of reasoning" that underlies Newton's "norms" you cited above.
Is there any straightforward common form of reasoning that would directly lead anybody to those norms?

My tentative answer would be yes, there is, and that form of reasoning is (put in a normative way):
- do not consider as true any interpretation or hypothesis you may conceive to explain a physical (chemical, biological, social) process merely based on how many observations it fits or how nicely it fits them, but rigorously try and verify/falsify all its predictions.

In this perspective, a "method" as a normative set of rules may follow, but it would become a historically evolving series of norms about:
-- how to (quantitatively) measure the likelihood of a hypothesis and to set up attempts at falsifying it
-- how to deal with failed predictions of a hypothesis that looks as necessary and sufficient to explain data so far available

If there are no ways to measure the likelihood of a hypothesis (relative to contrasting hypothheses) or to falsfy it, then we are out of the domain of applicability of any scientific criterium (Popper as I understand him)

If a hypothesis that looks as necessary and sufficient can be falsified and is falsified, then suspect that it might not be necessary per se but appear so in order to be compatible with current paradigms, and cast some doubt on current paradigms, so that these may evolve as well (Kuhn as I understood him).

The point actually is that made by mtbt: our mind is subject to traps.
Pseudoscience plays with these traps
A theory that nicely fits many observations (all people that kept a nut in their pocket for long enough have recovered from a cold) might well be convincing, but the scientific approach is not to accept it unless it clearly is more likely (this involves statistics and probability theory) than contrasting hypotheses and/or its predictions are more accurate.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby Eclogite on January 23rd, 2015, 6:56 am 

AllShips » Mon Jan 19, 2015 8:13 pm wrote:
Eclogite » January 20th, 2015, 8:11 am wrote:
AllShips » Mon Jan 19, 2015 5:19 pm wrote:What are rules if not normative? "Safety helmets must be worn at all times". Is this a description or a prescription?

Clearly we are using different definitions of normative. For me it includes a strong element of the ideal. Any definitions I have read of it have the same sense.

The ideal and the practical are different. Your safety helmet statement is not normative. It is an explicit instruction.



Sigh! Here's what the first online dictionary I consulted gives us:


normative adjective
1. of or relating to a norm, especially an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.
2. tending or attempting to establish such a norm, especially by the prescription of rules:
normative grammar.
Sigh! Here's the first definition I encountered when I was checking to see if I was misusing the word.

From Wikiepedia: Normative means relating to an ideal standard of or model, or being based on what is considered to be the normal or correct way of doing something.........In philosophy, normative statements make claims about how things should or ought to be.

I am perfectly happy to agree that both usages are accepted usages and that this has led to confusion in our exchanges on this point.

Read them carefully. Do you still wish to insist on your position that Newton's four rules of method are descriptive, and not a prescription for how scientists ought to reason? Why is he using words like "must" if he's offering only a description as you suggest?
You raise a false dichotomy. He is describing an ideal: how he thinks scientists ought to reason. He is simultaneously advising them to do so.

And still I have seen no response from you addressing the fact that any summary of a concept is necessarily lacking in detail. For me, that completely undermines your position.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby hyksos on January 23rd, 2015, 3:43 pm 

A few years ago, I would have come back with a hard definitive response describing the scientific method. But lately, I have learned a few things, and now I wouldn't dare try such a thing.

AllShips » January 16th, 2015, 2:12 am wrote:Many philosophers and scientists have written on the topic, but among those who affirm its existence, there seems little agreement on just what this method is.

"seems little agreement" is being coy. Scientists of recent date lock horns in all-out, no-holds-barred, intellectual warfare over this issue. This is my primary reason for not touching the topic with a proverbial 10 foot pole.

Here is Leonard Susskind VS Lee Smolin. Smolin claims a principle is not falsifiable, and therefore can't be science. Susskind retaliates in a letter. Then all hell breaks loose.

http://edge.org/conversation/smolin-vs- ... -principle
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby Marshall on January 23rd, 2015, 4:52 pm 

AllShips » Thu Jan 15, 2015 3:12 pm wrote:Well, is there such a beast? And if so, what does it look like?

I'm curious what the consensus, if any, among members here might be. Recent decades of research in the philosophy of science cast doubt on the existence of anything we might call the scientific method. Many philosophers and scientists have written on the topic, but among those who affirm its existence, there seems little agreement on just what this method is.

Meanwhile countless scientifically inclined websites and textbooks continue to assert its existence and efficacy. Details are not always forthcoming, but when they are, tend to take the form of something dismayingly simplistic and hopelessly inadequate along the lines of:

1. Observe
2. Formulate hypothesis
3. Test hypothesis
4. Revise or abandon hypothesis

These days I'm sometimes told (e.g. see Wiki) that The Scientific Method refers not to one method, but to a collection of methods; a rather dubious assertion which -- more to the point -- would appear to defeat the whole purpose of positing a unique and unifying method in the first place.

If indeed, as I suspect myself, there is nothing we can properly call The Scientific Method, does not intellectual integrity demand that we stop propagating myths and come clean with the general public who, presumably. take its existence for granted?

I'll be happy to hear all opinions. Thanks.


I'm curious as to how you use the word "exist".
Does virtue exist? (People define and use the word in different ways.)
Does success exist? (Ditto)
Does the physics community exist? (Different people probably draw the boundaries different ways.)
Are there some recognizable patterns in how they settle disagreements? Do PATTERNS of behavior exist?
Do TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS exist? (People might describe them different ways.)
Do LEGAL PRECEDENTS in courts of law exist? (People argue about them and bend them various ways.)
Does ENGLISH LAW exist?
Does war exist? Does peace exist?

My suspicion is that the word "exist" can lend a false air of precision to the question.
The scientific method is a useful phrase and there is a remarkable degree of overlap in how people apply it.
I don't think it is just one of "the things we tell children" to imagine that there is a unique right description of how people are proceeding when they follow the scientific method. It is naive to suppose that there is a unique correct recipe or definition of how the phrase is used.

But as a family of patterns of investigation and partially workable means of settling disputes it is REAL. It is an important feature of modern life and used and appealed to all over the place. It has recognized importance.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby Marshall on January 23rd, 2015, 5:23 pm 

Science (Nancy Cartwright among others observes) is in part an ADVERSARIAL tradition. Members of the community struggle with each other in traditional ways recognized by the community as acceptable, over various issues.

For instance when they need to, they have a CONFERENCE. Ostracism and diminished reputation are important sanctions. Journal editorial policies and departmental hiring policies can be effected by what goes down at conference.

Just this year two major world-class figures in cosmology (George Ellis and Joe Silk) called for a conference on what is and what is not within the bounds of physics. they called for all sides to be heard. Operationally in practical terms relevant to today, what is testable what is empirical, what is not.? How can one tell when a theoretical framework is too flexible, so easily adapted to any and all observations as to be physically meaningless.

The meanings of a phrase like scientific method must be regularly refreshed and revitalized by struggle over specific applications. You get that in the legal system too.

We'll see if Ellis and Silk get a response. They published a piece in Nature, called something like:
Scientific Method: Defending the Integrity of Physics.

I hope they get the international conference they are calling for.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby hyksos on January 23rd, 2015, 5:29 pm 

I was doing some thinking, I was reading some writing by Lawrence Krauss, and mulling over the Susskind/Smolin battle. I think I've made some small progress.

The Scientific Method is a harmonious circle connecting experimentalists with theorists.

  • Theorists working in isolation are merely doing metaphysics or math.
  • Experimentalists working in isolation do not know what to test.
  • Theory without data is blind. Experiment without theory is impotent.
  • Harmony is achieved when "Data informs theory, and theory motivates experiment."

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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby Marshall on January 23rd, 2015, 5:35 pm 

Nice visual presentation of a clear idea!

You might like the Silk Ellis article, which deals with specific issues like multiverse, eternal inflation etc.

I just now googled "Ellis Silk integrity physics Nature" and it was the first hit:
http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-m ... cs-1.16535

The title was in fact "Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics." and it was the 16 December 2014 issue of Nature.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 23rd, 2015, 8:33 pm 

Thanks once again to all who've posted. I'll begin by restating the premise of the OP and then try to address some of your valuable comments below:

In summary : In the popular media (Discovery Channel and its kin, popular science literature, countless websites) reference is made day-in day-out to "The Scientific Method". Eg.

"What these people should do is apply the scientific method to their problem."
"It was only with the discovery and development of the scientific method in the 17th century that..."

Now, you might call their interpretation naive, but I suggest that the general public are constantly being reinforced with the notion that science is in possession of a single ("the" clearly implies one), unique Method; a method that adds epistemic respectability to scientific knowledge claims, a method that explains why science succeeds where others fail, a method that at once unites all those disciplines from economics to geology to which the epithet science is commonly applied while distinguishing the aforementioned wholesome sciences from metaphysics, pseudoscience, Creationism, and all their shady, fleabitten brethren.

I don't believe science possesses such a method. I think I can state with some confidence that the majority of contemporary philosophers of science -- and I stress these are the people who devote careers to investigating this kind of thing (so perhaps we should be a little less dismissive of their findings) -- would agree with me. A great deal of research has been carried out, particularly over the last half century or so, to identify a common method of science; most philosophers have abandoned the project as a lost cause. At the very least we might say that there are good reasons to doubt that such a method exists. (Hyksos is obviously well aware of these misgivings)

Meanwhile scientists and popularizers of science, no doubt with the best of intentions, continue to assert TSM as if it's as certain and unproblematic as death and flight delays.

Now let me be very clear over the normative vs descriptive issue, as this pertains to both Neuro and Marshall's (remarks about "existing") contributions. My concern is not whether there exists a prescription for how some Tom, Dick or Karl advocates science ought to be done. Of course there exist as many of these as there are methodologists, and, if construed normatively in this way, the answer to the question "Does TSM exist?" is trivially: Yes! Lots of 'em! -- Bacon had one, so did Newton, so did Popper, so did a hundred others. You could write one, so could I, and so could a Young Earth Creationist. Of course, you'll have great difficulty finding any two methodologists whose prescriptions for good science are isomorphic.

This question is uninteresting. It's equivalent to asking "Does a definition of God exist?" What concerns me, rather, is the substantive question: Do any of these definitions of God correspond to something in reality? Analogously, do any of these prescriptions advanced by the ivory tower methodologists correspond to real world science? Do they capture the methodological essence of what all the Copernicuses, Galileos, Newtons, Lavoisiers, Darwins and Einsteins do -- and perhaps you yourself do -- and that outsiders do not do?

Several posters here have reacted defensively as if they feel I'm denying or impugning their scientific credentials. I'm not. No one denies that scientists in various disciplines and at various times deploy a panoply of methods and techniques for specific purposes. Again, this is uninteresting. The question of interest is : Is there a common methodology of science?

Thus far in the thread, little has been offered as evidence for the existence of such a unifying method of science. There have been repeated shifty-eyed (see Medawar quote) vague mutterings of "testing hypotheses", but no one seems able to tell me what form this testing takes. Is this the kind of test -- like a driving test -- that can be passed or failed? If so, what are the criteria for passing or failing? Or is this the kind of test where grades are given, as opposed to a simple pass-fail dichotomy? Or what? Until specifics are forthcoming (and I see Neuro trying), all talk of testing remains just that: empty talk.

Neuro, Owleye, and others have made repeated appeal to falsifiability, as scientists generally do in these circumstances. The first thing to note is that falsificationism as a candidate for The Scientific Method is just one man's brainchild, and that man, of course, is Karl Popper. (Owleye has already warned of the fallacy of an appeal to authority). Popper sets out by telling us rather immodestly that every previous methodologist got it wrong: there is no scientific method. He then proceeds to lay down his own prescription for good science.

Alas -- surprise surprise -- Popper butchered it too. The problems with Popper's methodology are profound, multifarious, and well known. Without going into too much detail, Kuhn and Lakatos in particular built compelling cases based on historical evidence that Popper's methodology whether workable or not (also hugely problematic) simply does not describe the normal modus operandi of scientific inquiry. Rather than striving to falsify their own hypotheses and theories (as Neuro hints at above) -- making bold predictions, laying their heads on the chopping block, and courting refutation, so to speak -- history tells quite a different story: scientists can and will go to enormous lengths to defend a cherished theory against refutation. Instead of dropping their theories in good cavalier Popperian fashion at the first whiff of prima facie falsifying evidence, the principal function of "normal science" in Kuhn's jargon is precisely the opposite, viz., to reconcile recalcitrant data with orthodox theory, in other words, prima facie falsifying evidence is absorbed into the paradigm such that it becomes confirming evidence.

(Those interested might read up on the Duhem-Quine thesis to learn how scientists are able to evade falsification in this way. There can be no such thing as a definitive or logical refutation in empirical matters. Note also that talk of falsification is ambiguous: Do you mean (i) logical falsification or (ii) methodological falsification, i.e. the scientist lays down criteria to the effect that if such-and-such an observation is made, he will abandon his theory. In other words, a personal promise! See also Dawkins and his precambrian rabbit - a joke! And a grotesque distortion of Popper's insight.)

The premise, then, is this : We have good reasons, I think, to suspect a myth is being propagated about science: the myth of The Scientific Method. From this I infer that not only intellectual integrity, but also self-interest, demands that scientists come clean. I fear the public are being deceived.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 23rd, 2015, 8:54 pm 

@ Eclogite

I owe you an apology. My last post (or two) directed at you was arrogant and unneccesarily brusque.

I had been assuming that the word normative has a standard usage. I see it doesn't. Most of my reading is in the domain of philosophy, and I took the philosophers' use of the word to be universal.

Wiki, as you suggested, is helpful:

"Normative has specialized meanings in different academic disciplines such as philosophy, social sciences, and the law."

and

"In philosophy, normative statements make claims about how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong. Normative claims are usually contrasted with positive (i.e. descriptive, explanatory, or constative) claims when describing types of theories, beliefs, or propositions. Positive statements are (purportedly-) factual statements that attempt to describe reality."

(and this is how I understand the term)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative


One book I'm presently reading (Larry Laudan's "Science and Hypothesis" - shaping up to be a terrific read!) has also caused me some misgivings over the confidence with which I expressed certain opinions to you in a previous post about the descriptive-normative relationship vis-à-vis The Scientific Method. It's not entirely clear that I'm wrong (although I usually consider it a good bet : ) ), nonetheless I shouldn't have been so assertive. I'm sorry!

I'm not at all concerned with winning debates or anything like that. All I really care about is learning, understanding, and getting things right. You've alll helped me with that. Thanks!
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 23rd, 2015, 10:22 pm 

So much for falsificationism. In his post above Neuro also makes appeal to verificationism, or the possibility of assigning an objective probability to a hypothesis (i.e. Carnap's failed program of inductive logic). Unfortunately, as Popper and others demonstrated brutally, verificationism fares no better than falsificationism.

Philosopher Imre Lakatos sums up the bleak prospects thus:-

"The only embarrassing thing is that in 1925 Ritchie showed that the probability of H, given E, equals zero, for any hypothesis and any evidence whatsoever. Intuitively this is crystal clear. What is a scientific hypothesis? A scientific hypothesis says something about the world. For instance : "All bodies attract each other according to the inverse squared law". The information content of such a theory is enormous. A piece of evidence is one piece of factual information about something with a spatio-temporal coordinate, i.e. a little bit of the universe. So it is quite clear that if we agree that all events are equi-probable, we have infinitely many events which add up to a scientific theory and therefore, since we are capable of producing only a finite amount of evidence, the probability P will always be zero. This is what Ritchie showed."
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby doogles on January 24th, 2015, 4:04 am 

I’d like to swing this thread back to the original post. I’d never heard of the term ‘The Scientific Method’ until the format of
"1. Observe
2. Formulate hypothesis
3. Test hypothesis
4. Revise or abandon hypothesis”
became a topic in this forum. I believe that this limited format described the methodology of observers and thinkers such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo in establishing the theory of heliocentricity. Their hypotheses were to a large extent counter-intuitive to religious doctrines of the time; their arguments, involving observations and hypotheses, required a generic name – hence “The Scientific Method’. That’s my theory.

Obviously the term was useful in those days when comparing religious theories, philosophical theories and scientific theories. Some evidence for this is that according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term first appeared in 1580, based on a French word ‘scientifique’, derived from the Latin words ‘scientia’ (= knowledge) and ‘ficus’ (= making).

1580 was in the era of Copernicus.

We do have accepted formats, which have evolved since the above 4-stage descriptor, for reporting scientific research these days, but no one I know in research has ever referred to them as ‘The Scientific Methods’.

Researchers can be extremely critical of the findings and conclusions of individual papers, but no one criticises the generally accepted formats and expectations of rigour in the presentation and peer-review of current published articles.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby wolfhnd on January 24th, 2015, 4:37 am 

The problem I have with this tread is that there seems to be a tendency to separate the practical necessities of the working scientist from the epistemological origins of science. We can readily accept that the theoretical scientist may of necessity be in part an epistemologist but there seems to be little recognition that an epistemologist trying to formulate a philosophy of science must be something of a scientist.

As far as I can tell only owleye has addressed this clearly. I think Einstein captures the idea well in the quote below.


"The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is—insofar as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled. However, no sooner has the epistemologist, who is seeking a clear system, fought his way through to such a system, than he is inclined to interpret the thought-content of science in the sense of his system and to reject whatever does not fit into his system. The scientist, however, cannot afford to carry his striving for epistemological systematic that far. He accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system. He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from what is empirically given); as positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sensory experiences. He may even appear as Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research."

Einstein 1949

Part of Einstein's enduring popularity is no doubt in part because he was science philosopher. The pace of life for the majority of today's scientist however is such that they do not have the time for a formal philosophical background. Fortunately scientific progress is not dependent on formal logic at the practical level. Science has become something of a industrial system and most scientist assembly line workers. It functions in part because of inertia and in part due to group intelligence. Like all social endeavors it could benefit from improved logical organization and it would be absurd to suggest that no attempt is made to supply that. That those attempts are mired in complexity is equally obvious.
Last edited by wolfhnd on January 24th, 2015, 4:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 24th, 2015, 4:49 am 

@ doogles

The four-step method I outlined in my opening post, and that you advert to above, is a sketch of the so-called "hypothetico-deductive method" (h-d method), or simply the "method of hypotheses". As other posts in this thread can testify, I think this is the methodological framework within which most present day scientists see themselves as conducting their scientific investigations. Ask most scientists and they will tell you that model just is The Scientific Method.

The idea is roughly this (and notice the striking similarity between this model and the Darwinian model of random variation combined with non-random selection) : We care not where hypotheses come from. They may be the result of educated guesswork, uneducated guesswork, intuition, eureka flashes, or even dreams! (Kekule and the benzene molecule). We happily concede that the process of hypothesis generation (the context of discovery) is non-methodical. It matters not. The process of testing and appraising these hypotheses (the context of justification) is methodical; the good ones will prevail as the bad ones are eliminated. The deductive consequences of hypotheses are tested against observation. Those whose predictions are at odds with observation or experiment are considered falsified and must be abandoned.

I daresay this is how many or most contemporary scientists see themselves. But is this really how scientists operate? Kuhn, Lakatos, and others answer with a resounding NO -- backed by reams of evidence. See my long post above. It is simply not the case that hypotheses and theories are unfailingly abandoned when their predictions fail to be borne out by observation. If indeed there is a unique form of reasoning used by scientists -- The Scientific Method -- the h-d model doesn't capture it.

This is not how scientists have always seen themselves though. As I mentioned earlier in the thread, speculative hypotheses were generally considered anathema to methodologists in the time period you mention. Newton most famously declared "I feign no hypotheses."

Natural philosophers (i.e. scientists) of that period generally saw the scientific method as inductive. Theories, laws, or whatever you want to call them, were supposedly induced or extracted from the data. And if we have a method for extracting theories from evidence, then testing is clearly redundant. On the inductivist account of scientific method, theories do not need to be justified through testing, as they do under the hypothetico-deductive model; instead, theories are justified in virtue of the very manner by which they are generated.

Inductivism, alas, turned out to be quite untenable too.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby owleye on January 24th, 2015, 11:40 am 

Allships...

In your more recent posts you have outlined the issues surrounding TSM very well, I think. it seems now is a good time to reflect on how you want to proceed with this topic. One thing stands out in your summary, which is that it is taking up the position of critiquing positions that claim there is one. And, as a starting point you offer certain well-known thinkers who have such a claim.

In its simplest form, then, it would seen the way to proceed is to pick one of these claimants and extract out its argument, laying bare what it is they are claiming. From there, as a topic, we can challenge the participants to find its flaws. Perhaps you don't wish to take the time to do this, requiring the participants to figure it out.

However, given the wide berth to science, it may be quite impossible to cover every one of them equally, having already picked apart why this must be the case. However, in my view this should not be an impediment to the task you have in mind. The concept of science itself is not exactly defined with great clarity, and we might just consider it an umbrella term, though assuming that the umbrella covers only sciences that are considered acceptably scientific, whatever that may be.

In the direction in which the claimants seem to be heading, it seems to me that they are referring to sciences that are largely, if not entirely, quantitatively determined, tested and evaluated. In addition, these are the sciences which are the most mature, and which are more structured than other sciences, the maturity being such that perhaps it is worth saying the the methodology itself is what is fixed, if not what constitutes knowledge. Note that scientific knowledge itself is at stake in these disciplines, so it is also important in my mind to realize that scientific knowledge must be given some support.

Now the idea of falsification in this subset of sciences depends on quantitative differences between what the evidence provides and what the theory predicts. Of course, in actual practice this is quite inadequate to overturn existing theory and what's clear is that one would have to compare current theory with the upstart. And even here, much wrangling is needed to change the paradigm, as pointed out by Kuhn. In any case, if we restricted the extent of the use of science so that the claimants are given a fair hearing on the scope of their claim it might be worth tackling their argument.

Of course, where should the cutoff be? From my limited perspective, the cutoff would be biology, as in my view, we are currently living in the age of biology. Unfortunately, this age began with the discovery of DNA and though it hasn't looked back, I'd say it belongs in what Kuhn calls Normal Science. As far as I can tell, there have been no major challenges within biology to its main Darwinian framework. I can't say I've followed it closely, but it's possible that such a framework has been placed on a firm mathematical principle (something I've actually seen in the literature perhaps 30 years ago), but as I'm an outsider I have no idea how far this has progressed, if at all, and whether there is within biology any real use for a quantifying evolutionary theory.

And there is another impediment, which is that life itself is rather a property that is best characterized as due to an emergent property, namely function. And while function is reducible to underlying structure, it doesn't seem to be amenable to quantification the way its underlying structure is. Temperature, for example, emerges from some underlying activity but is sufficiently understood that it is quantified. Function has a chance for this, along a possible spectrum of functional, dysfunctional, but I'm not sure how far it goes. (Note that computer science has made some strides on this particular concept, though my reading is that is drifting away biological functioning.)

Well, I've presented my two cents on how the topic should proceed. I hope you might have a look at it and
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby neuro on January 25th, 2015, 12:31 pm 

If I may, just for the sake of polemizing...
What follows is a good example of "not using the scientific method":
AllShips » January 24th, 2015, 3:22 am wrote: it is quite clear that if we agree that all events are equi-probable, we have infinitely many events which add up to a scientific theory and therefore, since we are capable of producing only a finite amount of evidence, the probability P will always be zero. This is what Ritchie showed."

This is the way a philosopher may argue, but a scientist won't.
No use in computig anything/infinity or even infinity/infinity. So turn to something MEASURABLE.

I mentioned likelihood, above.
Any serious scientist obviously knows that it is not possible to test the likelihood of a hypothesis.
Still, LIKELIHOOD is a standard statistical parameter scientists use, and quite profitably. The point is that the "likelihood" measures the probability of observing the observed data given the theory is true, not the other way around.
It is like the very widely used statistic "p", which does not tell you anything about the probability of a theory being right, but only tells you what is the probability of finding the observed difference purely due to chance between two conditions where you expect to exist such a difference based on your theory.

If you ever happened to deal with "likelihood" in a scientific question, you would have found ridiculously small numbers (say, 10-35) for most hypotheses, but the point is that the likelihood (probability to observe exactly the same values you observed) would have probably been much different for two distinct hypotheses. This means that you can MEASURE a difference between the two hypotheses. The one which gives you a better relative lkelihood is to be preferred.

This is not the scientific method.
But the scientific attitude is to look for something MEASURABLE to help you choose between contrasting hypotheses...
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby owleye on January 25th, 2015, 1:37 pm 

neuro...

Good point you make on the predictive side. On the experimentalist side, I was enormously impressed that science developed better statistical platforms. There is now some substance to statistical descriptions and predictions. Statistics (and probability theory) have been put on firmer footing. I understand its use in every field, including sub-atomic physics that goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the results of the experiments (the most notable for me, regarding the discovery of the Higgs Boson), went into making sure that every other possibility is ruled out. In order to make advances, one must overcome statistical fluctuations, and this seems to be something scientists discipline themselves to make the best use of. At this point, however, I'm unsure how far to go to include it in any scientific methodology. It does one thing, though. It improves the Popper orientation regarding falsification, though for major paradigm shifts, it is not adequate.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 25th, 2015, 6:25 pm 

In response to comments both Neuro and Owleye have made above regarding the quantitative vs the qualitative, I certainly agree that science by and large -- these days at least (sorry Aristotle) -- is eager to measure, to quantify, presumably to add a certain cachet of respectability to its work.

The problem once again, though, is doing a juggling act between criteria that are too restrictive (all the bad guys get kept out, but some of the good guys get excluded too) or too permissive (all the good guys get admitted, but lots of bad guys get in too). If we take quantifiability as a mark of the scientific, (and I note Neuro said attitude, not method), then it appears we'd have to concede that engineers, policemen, journalists, and perhaps even astrologers are doing science.

On the other hand, just to name one glaring counterexample, we might have to conclude that Charles Darwin wasn't doing science. Correct me if I'm wrong for I haven't read it, but I'm not sure that Origin of Species contains any mathematics at all. Even if there are one or two equations lurking in there somewhere, suppose there were none : would we really want to say that Origin is a work of pseudoscience?


But yes, Neuro's point is well taken. Popper et al were reacting to the logical/mathematical approach to the interpretation of scientific theories espoused by his arch rivals: the logical positivists. These days, I think, rather than try to put an objective number (ironically!) on the probability of any given hypothesis, defenders of TSM in philosophy focus on determining which of a set of rival hypothesis provides the best explanation for the phenomena in question (Inference to the Best Explanation), or in the case of another TSM wannabe, supply a calculus for how one's subjective degree of belief ought to be rationally amended in the face of new evidence (Bayesianism).

Then watch 'em fight it out over who has identified the real scientific method.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby owleye on January 25th, 2015, 7:36 pm 

AllShips » Sun Jan 25, 2015 4:25 pm wrote:The problem once again, though, is doing a juggling act between criteria that are too restrictive (all the bad guys get kept out, but some of the good guys get excluded too) or too permissive (all the good guys get admitted, but lots of bad guys get in too). If we take quantifiability as a mark of the scientific, (and I note Neuro said attitude, not method), then it appears we'd have to concede that engineers, policemen, journalists, and perhaps even astrologers are doing science.


I would certainly agree with this problem. However, what I was trying to avoid is to require that major sciences, for example, psychology, or sociology, or history, or anthropology, has any overarching agreed upon theory just to include it with the hard sciences which establish a theoretical framework that is captured in its mathematical framework. These sciences, including psychology, are rapidly becoming quantifiable in the sense in which there is a large effort to make ones findings depend on quantitative results.

Allships wrote:On the other hand, just to name one glaring counterexample, we might have to conclude that Charles Darwin wasn't doing science. Correct me if I'm wrong for I haven't read it, but I'm not sure that Origin of Species contains any mathematics at all. Even if there are one or two equations lurking in there somewhere, suppose there were none : would we really want to say that Origin is a work of pseudoscience?


Well, I'm not entirely sure about that. It may seem to be entirely qualitative to document and classify the bills of pigeons, but there is a sense in which they are quantifiably distinct as well as qualitative. He approach, that of 'natural philosophy' nevertheless is from the standpoint of showing that there is a evolutionary link between separate species that he carefully documented. Such a linkage, while not characterized in any mathematical form, nevertheless leads him to understand how much time it might take for species that had been separated could diverge into separate species (his main objective regarding the origin of species).

Even so, I'll concede that like other of the 'rejected sciences', there appears to a paucity of thinking about evolutionary history that would reveal a fixed mathematical theory that covers it. Notwithstanding this, the subfield of cladistics, which tracks the branching of species is certainly filled with a mathematical treatment that intends to track changes in DNA.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby mtbturtle on January 25th, 2015, 8:07 pm 

What about all that Qualitative Research in the Social Science?
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby neuro on January 26th, 2015, 6:31 am 

mtb & allships,
I wouldn't like my positon to be understood as science = quantification.

In the first place, qualitative differences certainy are even more relevant than quantiative ones.
Secondly, in order to be able to quantify sophisticated mathematics are only seldom needed.

I see the philosophical importance of clarifying whether a "scientific Method" exists and, if so, what it is.
But one should not wonder if, in asking scientists, a common tendency is encountered to state that such "method" exists and a difficulty at describing it.

The simple point is that people who seriously study something clearly feel the importance that their substantiated claims be treated differently from any extemporanoeus hypothesis or theory.
This leads them to try and examine alternative hypotheses, logically evaluate or statistically quantify the differences in credibility and likelihood of the contrasting hypotheses, try and modfy hypotheses in order to better (lgically, qualitatively or quantitatively) improve their consistency with observations.

This, in non-philosophical terms, is the "scientific method": assume a scientific attitude, i.e. do not accept nice ideas without testing them, try and demonstrate in some way that your choice of a hypothesis over another is justified by its higher power in explaining available data.

Sure, beliefs and choices are often biased by current paradigms; emotional aspects can lead to under- or over-estimate specific aspects, to incur in logical, statistical, mathematical errors, or even, sometimes, to somebody "retouching" or even falsifying data.

But so what?
Does claiming the validity of the golden rule "treat other people as you'd like them to treat you" imply that good-willing people always do it?
And, if not, does this mean that the golden rule is no rule, isn't specific enough, doesn't exist?
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby owleye on January 26th, 2015, 8:25 am 

neuro...

Well, the 'so what' part of your conclusion is enough for anti-scientists to drive a truck through. Science is not an isolated institution. It can't go about making pronouncements with any authority if it is seen as emotion laden and biased. In any case, I think, by and large, science tends to avoid this by its emphasis on objectivity. And this is first observed in its publications -- the individual scientist is not singled out, so that the assumption is that the author is speaking for any scientist in the same position, especially in the conduct of experiments. (Back room theorizing that is published intends to make the arguments stand for themselves, not because the author promulgated them.) Not sure that in some intellectual climates this is enough, but where science is upheld, there is some presumption that there's a reason for it. Objectivity isn't the only thing, I would imagine. That it is evidence based is surely another, but one thing that strikes me is that when explanations are required (and they always are), the scientist tends to be listened to, excepting of course when we get something like the following:

I recently read about Bill Nye's respond to Bill Bellichick's explanation for the deflated footballs. Bill Nye cast much doubt on Bellichick's explanation by regarding the amount of deflation to be something that only removing air from the football would account for. In reading the comments to this, it was remarkable the number of folks who defended Bellichick as if he were the scientist and not Nye. Perhaps there are saner people doing the investigation.

And then there are the no-vaccination die-hards who've infected Disneyland's employees with measles.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 26th, 2015, 9:10 am 

neuro » January 26th, 2015, 6:31 pm wrote:This, in non-philosophical terms, is the "scientific method": assume a scientific attitude, i.e. do not accept nice ideas without testing them, try and demonstrate in some way that your choice of a hypothesis over another is justified by its higher power in explaining available data.



Well, once again, with no disrespect intended Neuro, one would have to be almost fanatical in one's defence to argue that what you're offering us here is a method. This is a pep talk, not a method!

You're giving us inspirational slogans and mottos that might look nice on bumper stickers and T-shirts. But you're giving us nothing whatsoever of any substance. Your pep talk can be reduced more or less to "Don't just believe any old rubbish".

(And I doubt if even the most incorrigible of religious zealot lost causes would gainsay this noble principle.)

But once again you don't tell us how, which is supposed to be the whole point. How are we to distinguish between those propositions/theories worthy of acceptance from those which aren't?

To cap it all, you advise us "... try and demonstrate in some way ..."

Um, that's why we're here, isn't it? : To identify this way.
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Re: The Scientific Method : Does It Exist?

Postby AllShips on January 26th, 2015, 9:25 am 

How about this then?

A lot has been said in this thread about testability, falsifiability, healthy skepticism, and the proper spirit of science. What say we take a leaf out of Popper's book? The good scientist, according to the good Sir Karl, is supposed to lay his theory on the line. The good scientist is supposed to specify in advance -- by way of bold predictions -- under what circumstances he would abandon his theory.

To those who subscribe to the hypothesis that science is privy to a unique and unifying Method which facilitates the reliable generation of knowledge of the world, I ask : are you willing to specify bold criteria which, if satisfied, would lead you to regard this hypothesis as falsified and reject it?

Or have you been selling us an unfalsifiable hypothesis?

(Don't forget the bold part now. And if this method isn't supposed to generate knowledge of the world, what is it supposed to do?)
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