What is the scientific method?

By Patricia Ryaby Backer                                                                June 9, 1998, Revised 10/29/04

Note: This section was drawn from Rutherford & Ahlgren's (1990) book Science for all Americans, which is a publication from the AAAS.

            According to Rutherford and Ahlgren (1990), scientific inquiry is not composed of a fixed set of steps that scientists always follow all of the time: it is not a single path that leads them unerringly to scientific knowledge. However, there are consistent features of scientific thinking that are consistent among scientists.

            In the scientific method, the validity of scientific claims is settled by referring to observations of phenomena (accurate data). Data is obtained by observations and measurements taken in situations that range from natural settings (such as a forest) to completely contrived ones) such as the laboratory). "Scientists observe passively (earthquakes, bird migrations), make collections (rocks, shells), and actively probe the world (as by boring into the earth's crust or administering experimental medicines)" (pp. 5-6).

            A key to the objectivity of the data is the notion of random selection. The classic, "pure" research design is the double-blind study in which subjects (whether they are plants, animals, or human beings) are assigned randomly to both the experimental group and the control group--this constitutes the first "blind" in the double blind. In order to further guarantee against bias in the experiment, the researchers themselves don't know which of the subjects are in the experimental or control group, that information is controlled by an external party--this constitutes the second blind in a double blind study.

            Many times it is not practical to use a double-blind approach although scientists still attempt to use randomization to control for differences among the subjects. Some studies attempt to study the entire population (a population is the entire group that you are studying--if you were studying the effect of fertilizer on roses, all the roses would be the population) rather than taking a sample of it; in this way, you can make conclusions based upon the entire group. [For an example of a non-randomized study, read the article by Dan Horvitz, entitled Pseudo opinion polls: SLOP or useful data.]

            Although scientists have the freedom to come up with any sort of hypothesis or theory, any hypothesis or theory might be subjected to a rigorous examination based on the principles of logical reasoning. This is done to test the validity of arguments by applying certain criteria of inference, demonstration, and common sense. The "process of formulating and testing hypotheses is one of the core activities of scientists. To be useful, a hypothesis should suggest what evidence would support it and what evidence would refute it. A hypothesis that cannot in principle be put to the test of evidence may be interesting, but it is not scientifically useful" (pp. 6-7).

            After taking observations and testing their hypotheses, scientists attempt to explain the "observations of phenomena by inventing explanations for them that use, or are consistent with, currently accepted scientific principles. Such explanations-theories-may be either sweeping or restricted, but they must be logically sound and incorporate a significant body of scientifically valid observations" (p. 7).

            The scientific method requires that rigorous testing must be undertaken at every step of the process with the key being an objective observation f the natural environment. Hypotheses are tested by subjecting them to data acquisition and observations; if there is sufficient evidence based upon the data, then the hypothesis becomes a theory. Theories must fit the facts that have been uncovered but they should also have a predictive power--that is, they should explain and fit future observations.

Why was the scientific method so attractive to people solving non-scientific problems?

            In their history of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Morrell and Thackray (1981, p. 32) noted that science became consolidated as "the dominant mode of cognition of industrial society." They further noted that this was because science was considered to be a value-neutral domain of knowledge--apoltical, non-theological, universal, and objective--unlike any other (Stepan & Gilman, 1993). The result of this perspection was that science and the scientific method became the unbiased and non-political way to solve problems.

            Ellul (1964) traced the dominating influence of the scientific method to the 18th century. At that time, he believes, there was a breakdown of medieval society that caused a shift in perception that took place all over Europe. The middle class began evaluating new questions is different terms; that is, Is a particular approach effective? Is it efficient? Does it work?

            This perspective shift was based in the belief that the scientific method was the best mechanism for solving problems and that reason must be applied to every facet of human life. This was the advent of mechanistic thinking which included new machines--mechanical looms, reapers, threshing machines--and new machine-like social organizations--the factory system, bureaucratic armies, state administration by rational bureaucratic principles, and systematized monetary techniques.

            According to Stepan and Gilman (1993), in the period between 1870 and 1920, the consensus about science was strong. Theological, ethical, and political approaches to knowledge were reduced in authority with science becoming pre-eminent. According to Glendinning (1990), we still live in the 20th century under the system that they established. This is the reason why most Americans and Westerners look first to a technical solution or "fix" to any problem--it is a mechanistic, technological progress that we seek in society, not generally a humanistic one.

            In the Western world, we embrace progress as essential for our existence. To us, progress is the experience of time as linear, as "a ribbon stretching into the future, along which one progresses" (Hall, cited in Glendinning, 1990)

            Mumford (1986, cited in Glendinning, 1990) wrote that society believes in

"the assumption that human improvement would come about more rapidly, indeed almost automatically, through devoting all our energies to the expansion of scientific knowledge and to technological invention; that traditional knowledge and experience, traditional forms and values, acted as a brake upon such expansion and invention; and that since the order embodied by the machine was the highest type of order, no brakes of any kind were desirable....Progress was accordingly measured by novelty, constant change, and mechanistic difference, not by continuity and human improvement."

 

Methodological criticism of the scientific method

            Scientists generally believe that the success of science is due to the application of the scientific method. Successful scientists are led by their underlying assumption to conclude that their success roves that they have followed this method. Any criticism of the scientific method is seen as uninformed and usually is ignored. Part of the justification for this dismissal of criticism lies in another fundamental belief of scientists--that science is self-correcting (Bauer, 1992).

            Stephen Brush (1974), a historian of science, wrote an article that called into questions many of the fundamental underpinnings of the scientific method. He found that historical research into science casts serious doubt on the notions of objectivity, rationality, scientific method, and open-minded inquiry.

            Winner (1990) notes that there are many myths about science that help science maintain its position in society. Among the myths are:

"that science proceeds along the same course regardless of who pays the bills

that objectivity is both an unambiguous, desirable and easily established condition of scientific research

that there is a "reality out there" which science "discovers"

that science is essentially free of the influences of gender, racism, social class, and other pungent cultural influences" (p. 13).

            Bauer (1992, p. 23) describes an over-reliance on theory as being evidence of the problems with the scientific method. According to Bauer, you can find many examples where facts and discoveries were discounted because they did not fit with accepted theory (including the discoveries of Hermann Helmholtz and Max Planck, Joseph Lister in medicine. Louis Pasteur, Gregor Mendel's observations of genetics, etc).. He cites a statement by Sir Arthur Eddington who said "it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory." What Eddington means is that old theories should not be discarded, despite new evidence to the contrary, unless a new theory is put forth superseding the old.

            The premise is that scientific research is reliable because it is carried out methodically. Therefore, any new bit of science has claim the authority of the scientific method as its foundation. Bauer (1992, p. 48) asks some thought-provoking questions.

            "Once-accepted but now superseded scientific views were arrived at, as were the now-accepted ones, supposedly by exercise of the scientific method. Does that mean the method was applied incorrectly or inadequately in the past? In that case, would we claim that scientists now are able to be more objective and more precise in formulating hypotheses than were scientists in the past?"

            Instead, Bauer suggests that the scientific method is a chimera. Objectivity in science results not from the accumulation of the individual objectivities of scientists but from the fact that the scientific community works through consensus building. This consensus building is the actuality of the scientific method.

            Thomas Kuhn (1970) critiqued another aspect of the scientific method--the objectivity of the scientists. Kuhn demonstrated, through his research, that science does not work logically and impersonally; rather he found that scientists brought their expectations and personal beliefs into their work. Kuhn found that the actual practice of science does not illustrate application of the scientific method. Instead, Kuhn believed that scientists and their research efforts were most affected by various means of socialization factors--commonly education and apprenticeship. Through this manner, established scientists incorporated younger generations of scientists into the scientific community thereby passing accepted beliefs and theories to a new generation.

            This also brings up the question as to what degree objectivity is possible? For many scientists, the belief is objectivity is a fundamental foundation on which they rely for their philosophical existence. This belief in the immutability of hard data anchors science in reality. Scheffler (1967, pp. v-vi), a philosopher of science, wondered about the consequences of objectivity coming under attack.

            "That the idea of objectivity has been fundamental to science is beyond question....The extreme alternative that threatens is the view that theory is not controlled by data, but the data are manufactured by theory; that rival hypotheses cannot be rationally evaluated, there being no neutral court of observational appeal nor any shared stock of meanings; that scientific change is a product not of evidenced appraisal and logical judgment, but of intuition, persuasion, and conversion; that reality does not constrain the thought of the scientists but is rather itself a projection of that thought."

 

Is the scientific method is so flawed, then why isn't is discarded?

            Some philosophers of science (Bauer, 1992; Harding, 1993) believe that the myth of the scientific method is difficult to eliminate because of the position of science in our society. Over the last few centuries, the authority of science has superseded the authority of religion and tradition because science offered the promise of more certain knowledge about the world. If science is proven to variable and unreliable, then "science is in essence a false god, and, moreover, is inferior to the God on whom science turned its back. Human beings, after all, do want to be certain about fundamental things, and religion offers (or used to offer) such certainty. So there is reluctance to accept that the method is a myth" (Bauer, 1992, p. 61).

Cultural criticism of the scientific method

            Introduction

            "It is true that in modern Western culture, the theoretical models propounded by the professional scientists do, to some extent, become the intellectual furnishings of a very large sector of the population....But the layman's ground for accepting the models proposed by the scientists is often no different from the young African villager's ground for accepting the models propounded by one of his elders. In both cases the propounders are deferred to as the accredited agents of tradition....For all the apparent up-to-dateness of the content of his world-view, the modern Western layman is rarely more 'open' or scientific in his outlook than is the traditional African villager" (Horton, 1993)

            Harding (1993, p. 17) points out that the scientific method is supposed to maximize objectivity "by guarding against the intrusion of obscuring and distorting social values into the results of research." Besides being skeptical of the idea of objectivity, Harding also questions the process of generating the research questions themselves. She believes that since racist and Eurocentric political concerns shape the questions that science asks, then the results themselves are, by connection, also racist and Eurocentric.

            Harding (1993) asserts that science retains much of its early, authoritarian elements left after its battles with organized religion. These elements encourage science to adopt a religious tone and attitude, "both toward the 'pure nature' it observes and toward its own activities, that rewards fanaticism and the idea of 'true believers' who have a pipeline to the one true story about the world. It frequently exhibits a paranoia about the possibility of 'outsiders' influencing science, conceptualizing them as 'crackpots' and megalomaniacs all too manipulative in their appeal to the ignorant masses, who are imagined as all too ready to swarm up and overwhelm fragile reason" (p. 19).

            Eurocentric criticism of Western Science

            Science in China has a long history and developed quite independently of Western science. Needham (1993) has researched widely on the development of science and technologies in China, the effect of culture, and the transference of these principles, unacknowledged, to the West. The Chinese contribution to Western science is particularly interesting because it serves as a center of controversy about the roots of Western science.

            According to traditional Western scientists, the roots of science and the scientific method is in Greece and Greek thought. There is a tendency among scientists to claim that not only modern science, but science in general, was characteristic of European thought. The accompanying argument in that all scientific contributions from non-European civilizations were technology-based, not science-based (Needham, 1993).

"Albert Einstein one remarked that there is no difficulty in understanding why Indian or China did not create science. The problem is rather why Europe did, for science is a most arduous and unlikely undertaking. The answer lies in Greece. Ultimately, science derives from the legacy of Greek philosophy. The egyptians, it is true, developed surveying instruments and conducted certain surgical operations with notable finesse. The Babylonians disposed of numerical devices of great ingenuity for predicting the patterns if the planets. But no Oriental civilization graduated beyond technique or thaumaturgy to curiosity about things in general. Of all the triumphs of the speculative genius of Greece, the most unexpected, the most truly novel, was precisely its rational conception of the cosmos as an orderly whole working by laws discoverable in thought..." (Gillispie, 1960)

            Needham (1993), instead, looks at the distinction and definitions about science as too narrow. Mechanics was the pioneer among the modern sciences and the precursor to the mechanistic paradigm that all other sciences endeavor to imitate. Needham also concedes that mechanics is based on Greek deductive geometry.

            However, Needham (1993, p. 43) points out that modern science is much more than mechanics and has greatly expanded beyond the boundaries of mechanistic thinking. He looks at the development of science as an mixture of influences from different cultures and peoples.

"Suppose we erect a classification of four pigeonholes, science vertically on the left and technology vertically on the right, and let the upper boxes represent direct historical genesis while the lower ones represent subsequent reinforcement. Then taking the upper left-hand compartment first, the contribution of the Greeks will have the greatest share, for Euclidean deductive geometry and Ptolemaic astronomy, with all they imply, were undoubtedly the largest factor in the birth of the 'new, or experimental. science'....In the upper right hand compartment the situation is entirely different, for in technology Asian influences in and before the Renaissance (especially Chinese) ere legion..."

            Needham sees the bottom two compartments are being able to take achievements from non-Western cultures. In the case of scientific development, Needham notes many Asian accomplishments which preceded Western developments; however, many times without directly building on them.

            Feminist Criticism of the Scientific Method

            Science, by use of the scientific method, uses a reductionistic approach to knowledge. This reductionistic approach is one in which the whole is broken up into little parts; it is the belief that isolating and dissecting bits of nature will allow one to understand the whole. This context, in which the scientific method is used, implies that nature can be disassembled and reassembled under man's control--this view is fundamental to a masculine, analytical approach. This approach denies the innate relatedness of systems; it avoids the truth that the whole possesses more than the sum of its parts. Critics believe that science suffers from a myopia in methods which is based on the masculine ideal.

            According to Shepherd (1993), reductionism has led to spectacular discoveries and advances in scientific knowledge. However, this approach is not effective for all types of problems, especially not for problems that are not specialized. Shepherd cites the following problems as particularly unresponsive to the reductionist approach: curing cancer, predicting earthquakes, aspects of animal behavior, and developmental biology.

            Shepherd (1993) believes that the inclusion of the feminine into science will allow a vision of wholeness. She interprets a feminine perspective of science to be one of relatedness--this "means looking at the relationship between things, viewing things in context, seeing the connections that link everything together, stepping back to see the big picture--and even weaving together work and personal life. In doing so, we find the whole gives meaning to the parts" (pp. 228-229).

            A holistic approach to scientific investigation would marry the current reductionist approach of the scientific method with the relatedness approach of the feminine. This would allow scientists to see each level in the development of a mechanism--the collective properties are generally ignored and dismissed in a reductionist approach. According to Shepherd (1993, p. 229) "we need the analytical process to help us disentangle the threads, while always keeping one eye on the overall pattern to see what our meddling is doing. As in any endeavor, there is always the question of balance and perspective."

            Sylvia Pollack (1989), a professor at the medical school of the University of Washington gives a practical perspective on this duality of approaches.

"But what I work with is so complex, I wrestle all the time between being reductionist, which I see as being quite masculine, and being holistic or integrative, which I see as more feminine. I know I'm not going to get anywhere if I'm not reductionist. I've got to chop it into little pieces and look at it. At least I always try to remember we're looking at the pieces so we'll understand the whole system. Since I'm interested in how blood cells form, anything that happens in that process is fair game"

 

References

Bauer, H.H. (1992). Scientific literacy and the myth of the scientific method. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Brush, S.G. (1974, March 22). Should the history of science be rated X? Science, 183, 1164-1172.

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York: Vintage Books.

Gillispie, C.C. (1960). The edge of objectivity: An essay on the history if scientific ideas. Princeton, NJ:

Glendinning, C. (1990). When technology wounds. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Harding, S. (1993  ). Introduction. In S. Harding (Ed.), The racial economy of science (pp.1-22).Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Horton, R. (1993). African traditional thought and Western science. Cited in Harding, S. (1993) Early non-Western scientific tradition. In S. Harding (Ed.), The racial economy of science (pp.25-29).Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kuhn, T. (1970). Structure of scientific revolutions (2nd. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morrell, J., & Thackray, A. (1981). Gentlemen of science: Early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mumford, L. (1986). The Lewis Mumford Reader.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Needham, J. (1993). Poverties and triumphs of the Chinese scientific tradition. In S. Harding (Ed.), The "racial economy" of science (pp. 30-46).Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pollack, S. (1989). Interview. Cited in Shepherd, L. J. (1993). Lifting the veil. The feminine side of science (p. 230).. Boston: Shambhala.

Rutherford, F.J., & Ahlgren, A. (1990). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford.

Scheffler, I. (1967). Science and subjectivity. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Shepherd, L. J. (1993). Lifting the veil. The feminine side of science. Boston: Shambhala.

Stepan, N.L., & Gilman, S.L. (1993). Appropriating the idioms of science. In S. Harding (Ed.), The racial economy of science (pp.170-193).Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Winner, L. (1990). Is there a light under our bushel? Three modest proposals for S.T.S. Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, 10, 12-16.