The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century (with notable practitioners in previous centuries). It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method, as distinguished from a definitive series of steps applicable to all scientific enterprises.
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- The scientific method does not exist. But “the scientific method” does. This is a distinction with a difference. Scientists will tell you that there is no single method that characterizes all that they do, much less a simple set of steps that binds everything called “science” together. Scientific labor is complex and diverse, brutally difficult and impossible to encapsulate. If you think you have found a unifying principle, no doubt it leaves out some important aspect of scientific thinking or excludes a branch of what we now call the sciences. In the unlikely event that it does not, then the principle is probably overly inclusive, capturing too many practices to mean much at all. And it is not just scientists who doubt whether such a method exists. Historians are skeptical of it as well—for good reason. One glance back at the history of science reveals even more diversity than exists today, making a single set of steps uniting all the sciences that much harder to imagine. Scientists and historians do not always agree, but they do on this: there is no such thing as the scientific method, and there never was. And yet, “the scientific method” is alive and well. The idea of a set of steps that justifies science’s authority has persisted in the face of constant denials of its existence. Why? Because “the scientific method” is a myth—and myths are powerful things. How we talk about science, how we account for its origins and argue for its results, instills mythical authority in some claims and invalidates others. The myth of “the scientific method” matters, even if (or perhaps, because) the reality it attests is ambiguous at best. Between the doubtful existence of the scientific method and the unquestionable power of “the scientific method,” a history remains to be told. Doing so means exploring how these two phenomena interact, how the way we talk about thinking has shaped the quiet, even tacit process of thinking itself. As the historian of science Steven Shapin has argued: “A practice without an attendant myth is likely to be weak, hard to justify, hard even to make visible as a distinct kind of activity.” If Shapin is right that we are now “dubious of claims that there is anything like ‘a scientific method’—a coherent, universal, and efficacious set of procedures for making scientific knowledge,” we must recognize the power that inheres in the myth of such a method and its complex relationship to how science is actually done.
- Henry M. Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey (2020), Chap. 1 : Age of Method
- Until scientific inquiry came of age, human beings could not comprehend their relationship to the physical world, so they invented their own explanations. These explanations tended to be simplistic and in many cases, harmful. For example, if one knows a tidal wave is approaching and chooses to stay and pray for deliverance rather than leaving, this could be detrimental to his/her survival. People used to believe that plagues and diseases were retributions of an angry God, but the scientific method found that many diseases were carried by rats and lice, and caused by germs.
It is not that scientists are close-minded regarding these issues—it’s just that their acceptance of ideas requires more sophisticated standards and methods of inquiry.
- The scientific method helps to diminish biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions. The method requires that statements be verified and that researchers find out through experimentation just what works and what doesn’t. Scientists ask the question “what do we have here?” and then they proceed to do experiments to determine the nature of the physical world. This process requires that experiments be verified by others who must get the same results. One of the major developments in science was the realization that we can not acquire answers to problems just intuitively. It requires painstaking laborious effort and time to find solutions and answers. Often many failures come before any new findings.
- Now for the good news. The scientific method is nothing but a piece of rhetoric. Granted, that may not appear to be good news at first, but it actually is. The scientific method as rhetoric is far more complex, interesting, and revealing than it is as a direct reflection of the ways scientists work. Rhetoric is not just words; rather, “just” words are powerful tools to help shape perception, manage the flow of resources and authority, and make certain kinds of actions or beliefs possible or impossible. That’s particularly true of what Raymond Williams called “keywords.” A list of modern-day keywords include “family,” “race,” “freedom,” and “science.” Such words are familiar, repeated again and again until it seems that everyone must know what they mean. At the same time, scratch their surface, and their meanings become full of messiness, variation, and contradiction.
Sound familiar? Scientific method is a keyword (or phrase) that has helped generations of people make sense of what science was, even if there was no clear agreement about its precise meaning— especially if there was no clear agreement about its precise meaning. The term could roll off the tongue and be met by heads nodding in knowing assent, and yet there could be a different conception within each mind. As long as no one asked too many questions, the flexibility of the term could be a force of cohesion and a tool for inspiring action among groups. A word with too exact a definition is brittle; its use will be limited to specific circumstances. A word too loosely defined will create confusion and appear to say nothing. A word balanced just so between precision and vagueness can change the world.
- Daniel P. Thurs, "Myth 26:That the Scientific Method Accurately Reflects What Scientists Actually Do", in Ronald L. Numbers, Kostas Kampourakis (ed.), Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science (2015)