Occasionally I’ll have discussions with individuals regarding scientific topics. And given the current state of scientism in the western world, some of these individuals will make an appeal to “the scientific method” as way of solving a particular issue or problem that has come up in the discussion. However, this appeal isn’t as robust as they seem to think that it is. Why? The answer is quite simple. There is more than one “scientific method.”
Here are few examples of scientific methods and their advocates:
- Eliminative Induction
This approach to science was promoted by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Other names for it include the Baconian method, and the inductive method.
“Bacon’s method … consisted of three main steps: first, a description of facts; second, a tabulation, or classification, of those facts into three categories—instances of the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its absence, or instances of its presence in varying degrees; third, the rejection of whatever appears, in the light of these tables, not to be connected with the phenomenon under investigation and the determination of what is connected with it.”1
- Deduction from First Principles
René Descartes (1596-1650) championed this approach. Here is a summary of it:
1. accept only those ideas that are so clearly and distinctly present to the mind as to be self-evident,
2. divide difficult problems into simple parts that are manageable,
3. solve problems by moving in small steps from simple to complex,
4. survey every part of the reasoning so that nothing is overlooked.2
Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) formulated an early version of this method of scientific approach.
It can be summarized as: “scientists work to come up with hypotheses from which true observational consequences can be deduced”3
This approach to science was made significant by Karl Popper (1902-1994).
Essentially it states that “a theory is genuinely scientific only if it is possible in principle to establish that it is false.”4
And lastly, a different approach, is the concept promoted by Paul Feyerabend (1902-1994):
- Anything Goes
This particular approach to science has been labeled as rather anarchistic. This is because, in Feyerabend’s mind, there is no such thing as the scientific method. His book Against Method concluded that “there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. The history of science is so complex that if we insist on a general methodology which will not inhibit progress the only ‘rule’ it will contain will be the useless suggestion: ‘anything goes’.”5
All of this isn’t to say that science and its methods hasn’t been very successful in providing solutions to various problems. They have been and will continue to do so. Rather, what should be considered when appealing to the “scientific method” is the nature of what is being investigated and the methods being used. Approach matters. Starting assumptions matter. Philosophy of science matters.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, “Baconian method”, accessed October 14, 2018, www.britannica.com/science/Baconian-method
- Encyclopedia.com, “Descartes, René Du perron”, accessed October 15, 2018, www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-biographies/rene-descartes
- Andersen, Hanne and Hepburn, Brian, “Scientific Method”,The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed October 15, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/
- Encyclopædia Britannica, “Criterion of falsifiability”, accessed on October 15, 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/criterion-of-falsifiability
- Preston, John, “Paul Feyerabend”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed on October 15, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feyerabend/