The Scientific Method

I was going to use a New York Times article about the Scientific Method, that Susan highlighted, to say something about the scientific method. From what I’ve seen, the response to the article has been mixed, but I’m going to try to avoid commenting on it directly; I suggest reading it for yourself. The reason I was going to avoid this is because I do think that many practicing scientists/researchers do not have a deep understanding of the philosophy of science and can sometimes respond poorly to what is said by those who study science and the scientific method, without necessarily really understanding what they’re actually saying.

One reason is that most practicing scientists are not formally exposed to much in the way of the philsophy of science. To become a professional scientist these days normally requires doing an undergraduate degree where you’re lectured on many of the technical aspects of your subject. You also do lab work where you learn the experimental method and how to write lab reports. You do some computing, maybe do a course on how to do a literature search, how to read and assess a scientific paper, and how to write a report. You then do quite a lot of project work that teaches you how to actually carry out a research project, how to write it up, and how to present your results to your peers and to others. If you then carry on, you would normally do a PhD where you specialise, learn techniques associated with your research area, and continue to learn how to write-up and present your results.

So, what many practising scientists/researchers have learned is probably best called the scientific process, but they may not really have learned what is meant by the term the scientific method. Many would probably suggest that it is associated with consistency, consilience, and consensus, but that doesn’t really define what the actual method is, although it might tell us something of how we would assess the strength of the overall evidence. In some sense, many practising scientists/researchers probably don’t need to know how we would define something called the scientific method. They understand how to conduct, and present, their research, but they’re not really the ones who should be studying the overall scientific method.

Something I have wondered is if scientists/researchers would benefit from more formal exposure to the philosophy of science, and I’m not actually sure. One issue is simply that it’s hard to know where it would go; degrees (both undergraduate and postgraduate) are packed full of different things that students need to do, and so it may just be impossible to do it justice. It’s also not obvious if it would be of value, at this stage, at least. I think I’ve benefited greatly from thinking more about these kind of things over the last few years (since I started writing this blog) but I’ve been able to do so having been an active researcher for a good number of years. I don’t know how much value there would be for those who are not yet active researchers; understanding the context is probably important.

What I do think would be of great value would be if the general public had a better understanding of the scientific method/scientific process. It may well be that those best placed to engage in this would be those who study the scientific method, rather than those who practice it. However (and this is where I say one negative thing) I have certainly come across a number of social scientists (although not philosophers of science) who, when they discuss the scientific process in public, seem to misunderstand many aspects of it. What I think is clear is that, overall, the scientific process works; we have numerous successes and clearly understand the world around us better than at any time in human history. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but however we define the scientific method, it has worked remarkably well and I think those who do discuss it publicly should be careful of presenting a picture that makes it seem that we are less certain of our understanding than is actually the case.

I’ve written this fairly quickly and may well have illustrated what I said in the post; practising scientists typically don’t have a deep understanding of the philosophy of science. So, if others have different views, or anything to add, feel free to do so through the comments.

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117 Responses to The Scientific Method

  1. Eric Steig says:

    Interesting thoughts. Thank you. I personally think that learning history of science — not necessarily philosophy of science, but the two are often written about together — is incredibly important. The best work being done (in my humble and biased opinion) is that of Hasok Chang at Cambridge. Check out his new book, “Is water H2O?” This and his previous one on temperature are especially interesting — I think — for those with a physics background, who study climate.

    Best wishes!

  2. Eric,
    Thanks, I’ll have a look at those books. I have been reading some books that are related to the topic, and am keen to find more.

  3. Since Eric has mentioned books about the history of science (and he makes a good point about how important learning something of this is) about 15 years ago, I spent some time reading books about Darwin (and I can’t currently remember which) and found them fascinating. I think it’s well worth reading at least one biography of Darwin as he did play a really big role in how we conducted science.

    Not quite the same, but I also spent some time (also about 20 years ago) reading lots of Stephen Jay Gould books (which are mostly collections of essays). I found them really fascinating and well written. I particularly liked this one which – IIRC – explained some statistical issues really well (although, I may be remembering the wrong one).

  4. Magma says:

    Something I have wondered is if scientists/researchers would benefit from more formal exposure to the philosophy of science — ATTP

    Yes, I think they would. However, I think they already have a stronger ad hoc or practical understanding of the philosophy of science than most philosophers of science have of science itself, applied or theoretical.

    I’m curious, reasonably open-minded and well-read, but almost all of my attempts to delve into the philosophy of science have quickly ended in boredom or annoyance. And I don’t think my experience is the exception.

    Perhaps if more thoughtful, expert scientists passing the peak of their active research career turned their thoughts to this (Einstein did to some extent, as has Nobel laureate chemist John Polanyi) it would make more headway. It’s probably easier to turn a few thoughtful scientists into philosophers (recall the old term ‘natural philosophy’) than to turn philosophers into scientists.

  5. Willard says:

    > [M]any practicing scientists/researchers do not have a deep understanding of the philosophy of science[.]

    That alone is no biggie, in my opinion. One problem is when they rely on arguments that appeal to the scientific method. It can easily become insufferable.

    Worse still are incredible claims based on having read one or two books on epistemology without having been immersed in the discipline. This is how we get “but Popper,” “but Kuhn,” and “but Feynman.” It’s easy to be led astray and say stuff that can be contradicted by the authority they themselves cite.

    A recent ClimateBall ™ episode involved a mechanical engineer who works at the Boeing company, whom tried to bait me with “but Russell” at Judy’s. It started by distinguishing the Young from the Old Russell, simply to say that his Why I Am Not a Christian was wrong, but his History of Western Philosophy was right.

    One problem with this account is that Russell was more than 50 years old when he wrote the former lecture. Another is that the first is just a lecture, while the second is perhaps the first philosophy best seller of the 20th century – it’s one of the reasons behind his Nobel prize. So while it’s good lichurchur, it’s not very accurate.

    Our engineer from the Boeing Company continued with a story about causation, and referred to this story:

    Bertrand Russell once made a good point about statistical mechanics. If an alien came to England and observed the movements in and out of London every day, he might invoke a statistical explanation. But in fact, there are causes that can explain this movement in very great detail and offer more information. Ignorance of the causes of human behavior does not mean such causes do not exist.

    The problem with this interpretation is that Russell is well-known for his scepticism regarding any scientific concept of causation:

    Bertrand Russell famously argued against the notion of cause along these lines (and others) in 1912, and the situation has not changed.

    But of course our engineer from the Boeing Company complained that this was in 1912, and that our Lord changed his tune by 1945, i.e. the time he wrote his History. As you might guess, this other claim is false too:

    I think perhaps the strongest argument on Hume’s side is to be derived from the character of causal laws in physics. It appears that simple rules of the form “A causes B” are never to be admitted in science, except as crude suggestions in early stages. The causal laws by which such simple rules are replaced in well-developed sciences are so complex that no one can suppose them given in perception; they are all, obviously, elaborate inferences from the observed course of nature. I am leaving out of account modern quantum theory, which reinforces the above

    You’ll never guess where that quote comes from. For those who’d like to know more about causation, there’s this inaugural lecture by Huw Price that may be worth the read.

    Philosophy is harder than engineers who work at the Boeing Company may presume.

  6. Joshua says:

    ==> understanding the context is probably important.

    This discussion suggests to me a kind of split that I often see in various fields…placing theory in practice in opposition. I see theoreticians saying that the practitioners are unsophisticated in approach whereas practitioners think that theoreticians are unrealistic and do not understand real world implications or applications.

    In my experiences as a carpenter and as a teacher, I have always tried to focus my energy on bridging theory and practice, as theory and practice inform and enrich each other, even as theory and practice each tend towards irrelevance without the context supplied by the other.

    However, in my experience, there is a tendency towards group alignment that rather than encouraging cross-over between theory and practice, creates a partisanship that causes people to undervalue the mutual benefits.

  7. Joshua,

    This discussion suggests to me a kind of split that I often see in various fields

    Why did you interpret this as some kind of split; placing theory *and*?? practice in opposition? What I was trying to suggest is that one might understand the significance of the philosophy of science (and maybe even the history of science) if you’ve actually undertaken some, rather than simply being exposed to it in a more formal educational setting. In a sense, I was suggesting that you would understand it better, if you’ve actually practiced it.

  8. NWycha says:

    I highly recommend the book Laboratory Life by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. It’s what got me interested in the revival of the Sociology of Science. Along the same lines as what you are discussing with scientists and the philosophy of science, we have managed to get medical sociology a requirement for premed and nursing degrees at many institutions. The argument being that those professionals certainly benefit from learning about the social aspect of their field and how knowledge is created within it.

  9. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    I wasn’t suggesting that you were placing them in opposition, but that the discussion more generally reflects that oppositional framework…

    ==> What I was trying to suggest is that one might understand the significance of the philosophy of science (and maybe even the history of science) if you’ve actually undertaken some, ==>

    I completely agree…and was trying to suggest basically the same. And on the other side of the coin, as I think you were saying – I think that having a background in theoretical underpinnings can help in the “undertaking” of science

  10. Joshua,
    I see, okay we agree 🙂

  11. Nicholas,
    Thanks, I’ll try and have a look at that. The list of things I should be reading is growing, though 🙂

  12. Chris says:

    I tend to agree with Blachowicz point that the methods used in scientific pursuits are not exclusive to science. He seems to have felt a need to clarify this:

    Some readers claimed that I was denying the existence of a method that science employs. I was not. I was arguing against the claim that only science employs it.

    hmmm.. why title the article “There Is No Scientific Method” then?! This seems rather typical of the apparent modern need to “sex-up” stuff to attract readers/controversy.

    Anyway, science seems to employ the problem-solving and logical strategies we use in everyday life, including the playful and especially the curiosity-driven elements. Scientific enquiry tends to formalise this somewhat (careful attention to detail, reproducing experimental observations, statistical analyses, control experiments etc.) but ultimately this latter stuff is done to convince oneself (in the first instance) that one is on the right track.

    And much of this seems second nature – I’ve occasionally had pre-Uni school students working in the lab during the summer and they seem to understand from the off, the sort of things that are required including how to plan and experiment carefully, set up appropriate controls etc. I guess one picks up much of the detailed procedural and general “philosophical” approaches from one’s mentors, but this isn’t often done formally in my experience.

    Would be good if students took a Phil Sci course or two since it’s bloody interesting, and tends to stimulate some self-reflection on the somewhat priviliged position we’re in in being part of the long progression of enquiry..

    Many students are inherently interested in Phil Sci (I work in Mol Biol. and students invariably claim on their personal statements to have read Dawkins for example!). An excellent book for understanding the progression of modern Molecular Biology in the 20th century from the perspective of the participants is Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation”. btw,..

  13. Chris,
    I think the title was unfortunate and is probably why some responded poorly to the article. This is partly what I ws trying to get at at the end of my post. We do need to be careful of providing ammunition to those who would like to promote the idea that we are less certain about various scientific topics than we are in reality.

  14. NWycha says:

    I have the same problem with my reading list. 🙂 Interestingly, Latour has also written a lot on climate change denial, partially feeling as if his critique of facts in science had been misused or perverted. He also wrote a rather scathing critique of the ecomodernist manifesto “Fifty Shades of Green” which is well worth a read.

  15. Nicholas,
    Thanks, that’s an interesting essay by Latour.

  16. The article’s two examples are flawed.

    > When Socrates asked “What is justice?” there was never any doubt that his listeners knew what the word “justice” meant.

    This isn’t true; different participants to the dialogue have different views. One proposes “might is right” and “Socrates” (really Plato) has no coherent answer to that viewpoint. Interestingly, Justice is indeed very hard to define, unless you accept Hobbes’s version, which is to define it as “all that is not unjust”, and define *that* as breaking covenants, which I think is an excellent approach ( This inversion is reminiscent of Popper’s.

    Meanwhile, the bit about Kepler is over-simplified at best, since motion around the orbit not just its shape was very important.

    As to your question, do scientists need to study philosophy of science, I think I’d go for a Kuhn-like paradigm-type answer: 95%+ of scientists are doing factory-science and don’t need that kind of stuff; its the 5% who are in some sense thought-leading and truely innovating who need it; but then again, they’ve already got it, or they wouldn’t be there.

  17. Willard says:

    > This [there was never any doubt that his listeners knew what the word “justice” meant] isn’t true; different participants to the dialogue have different views.

    Yet they all could agree on specific instances of justice and injustice:

    This [there was never any doubt that his listeners knew what the word “justice” meant] is confirmed by the fact that Socrates and his listeners could agree on examples of justice.

    The author’s point would be untrue if knowledge of meanings implied specific views or conceptions in individuals. This would in turn imply that we call semantic internalism, or the view that meanings are in the head:

    Externalists dispute such conception of meaning. (My avatar dismissed the notion of meaning altogether as being opaque.) For them, as long as people can refer to what they mean in a way that they’re understood, all is well and good.

  18. WMC,
    I must admit that I found his whole description of Kepler’s process wrt the orbit of Mars a bit confused, but I couldn’t tell if that was because the author was actually confused or if it was simply how he thought he should explain it to his readers.

  19. WMC,
    I should add that I agree with the conclusion of your comment, with the caveat that they may have it, but may not be able to explain it.

  20. An athlete can use training plans used by others. Once you are at the top of your sport you may need to innovate the training plan to get ahead of the rest. That is the moment it probably helps to know about physiology and scientific studies on training.

    Similarly most scientists can probably simply learn how you do science by on the job training. But if you want to innovate it really helps to know a little about the history of science and the philosophy of science. If only because it reduces the fear of doing something completely new, starting a new field without a tradition to build on.

    I feel it deserves a place in the curriculum. Probably best after having had some experience with actually science or being about to do so. That is likely the moment the student is most able to appreciate it and most motivated to learn. That being said, I think I read some of these books quite early in my studies. But that was voluntary.

    I was going to use a New York Times article about the Scientific Method, that Susan highlighted, to say something about the scientific method. From what I’ve seen, the response to the article has been mixed, but I’m going to try to avoid commenting on it directly; I suggest reading it for yourself. The reason I was going to avoid this is because I do think that many practicing scientists/researchers do not have a deep understanding of the philosophy of science and can sometimes respond poorly to what is said by those who study science and the scientific method, without necessarily really understanding what they’re actually saying.

    Does the article actually say something about the scientific method? Or does it just give the reader the comforting feeling to be almost a scientist because the reader also thinks?

    I would advice not reading it. In fact I want my precious life time reading that piece back. Many people have probably read it because the New York Times signalled it was worthwhile by publishing it. The combined effect of this publication is similar to killing a small village.

  21. > The combined effect of this publication is similar to killing a small village.

    The killing of that small village could have been saved by better reading habits from empirically-minded readers, who may have preferred to skim over it and start with the author’s background paper, cited in addendum.

  22. I thought the title of the piece overstated the case, but echoing the words of its author — it’s what newspaper editors do. More nuanced (and truthful) might have been, “There is no ONE Scientific Method”. Religious wars have been started over less than the quibbling that goes on about the Only Way to do Real Science.

    Speaking of, reading the comments may be more entertaining than the article itself:

    lou andrews portland oregon July 5, 2016

    Professor Blachowicz is from Loyola Jesuit Catholic University in Chicago. That in itself should tell the reader to watch out, and take his anti-science column with a grain of salt. We know all about the Catholic Church’s anti-science stance for about 2,000 years now.

    Though some of the more the famous Catholic cleric-scientists who spring to mind weren’t Jesuits — Gregor Mendel (Augustinian), Roger Bacon and William of Ockham (Franciscan) — where would modern astronomy be today without the Jesuits? Ok, so they ultimately weren’t Galileo Galilei’s biggest fans … but Georges Lemaître?

  23. torroslo says:

    As a lurker for your wonderful site, I feel I must speak up. I too encountered the NYT article and thought there is much to relate to. I appreciated his comparison of scientific development to the the construction of poetry, removing excess and paring to the essential. But there was something not quite right about his subsequent description.

    A colleague pointed it out to me: the author asks “how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability.”

    This exposes his basic misunderstanding of science. As a philosopher, he should understand that it is not about precision, it is about reason. Clearly he does not understand this, or he would not have authored this article.

  24. torroslo,

    As a philosopher, he should understand that it is not about precision, it is about reason. Clearly he does not understand this, or he would not have authored this article.

    Eh? Very next sentence of the article reads: But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.

  25. I was a little startled to find this on my arrival at Dad’s place in Princeton. Apologies about the NYT reference. It’s a place where I can push against what I regard as common misconceptions, and hopefully I do more good than harm. aTTP is more thoughtful and less hotheaded than I am. I showed it to Dad, and he was interested. It’s late but I’ll come back and perhaps type out some bits and pieces from his book More and Different, which has a chapter on, for example, Emergence vs. Reductionism – and he gives a meaning to reductionism that as far as I can discern is different from the common scientific understanding of it. It’s all so far above my head, but it’s interesting.

    By the way, Blachowitz has put in an addendum and reopened comments. I was all set to try to give more thought to his premise, when I encountered the phrase “falsificationist method” (apparently he’s written a learned article and possibly more) so steam again emerged from my ears.

    The history of science is fascinating – some years back I read an old book about measuring dew, some hundreds of pages. The contrast between the minutiae of the work and the thought about what it meant embodied, in some ways, the best of scientific evolution. I’m sorry I can’t call to mind the wonderful blogger who covers this material; hopefully it will come to mind later.

    I do think it important to keep pushing against pushing science into narrow channels; its history is one of exploration and discovery, and should stay so. Unfortunately, people need to make a living. Bach wrote cantatas; scientists do science.

  26. I hate these kind of discussions about the “scientific method.”

    There *is* no scientific method. There are just researchers, theoretical, observational and experimental, where are trying to glimpse into what is not yet known.

    It’s just too bad if that cannot be summarized in a simple rule for lay people and scientific historians. It’s complicated and noncanonical and findings just pop up out of the unknown. So what? The limitation is yours, not theirs.

    Science grops its way forward. And yet it is the most powerful method ever established.

    What’s wrong with that??

  27. David B. Benson says:

    David Appell — Novum Organum by Sir Francis Bacon. Indeed, the club which hired the first professional scientist, Robert Hooke, called themselves baconists.

    This tract fully sets out the principles of scientific method. Scientists don’t just do, they do with method. Even if Feyerabend can’t figure out what it is.

  28. David,
    I agree that active researchers do not follow some kind of scientific method rulebook when they carry out research. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no value in people outside of science observing and trying understand how our understanding evolves and trying to understand what they might call a scientific method.

  29. Susan,
    Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you 🙂 Just wanted to give credit for you having highlighted the article here before.

  30. Chris says:

    This tract fully sets out the principles of scientific method. Scientists don’t just do, they do with method. Even if Feyerabend can’t figure out what it is.

    That’s a little unfair on Fayerabend. I think he would say that it doesn’t especially matter how one arrives at a scientifically-justifiable interpretation of observations of the natural world, since ultimately our interpretations are constrained by the objective nature [*] of external realities. This is (parenthetically) the main way in which science differs from other creative pursuits like poetry or art. The latter provide subjective interpretations and aim to stimulate emotional responses (that might in themselves provide i>personal insight into natural world phenomena).

    So Fayerabend might be expected to be accommodating of methodologically-suspect studies (e.g. Millikan’s putative massaging of oil droplet experiment data or Lindzen’s selection of time periods for measuring outgoing radiation responses to changes in sea surface temperature in support of spurious interpretations of climate sensitivity, or Wolfe-Simon et al’s description of arsenic substituting for phosphorus in bacterial DNA etc.)…..because the investigative responses to this suspect work, in fact reinforces our understanding of the particular phenomena.

    [*] some like to assert that the belief in the objective nature of external realities that underlies scientific pursuits is a self delusion 🙂

  31. jsam says:

    Those who can, do.

  32. Tom Curtis says:

    jsam, and those who can do brilliantly pay very close attention to those who think carefully about how it is done, eg, Darwin, or Einstein, or in a slightly different field, Alan Turing. (As a side note, I consider the middle Wittgenstein of the Mathematical Lectures to be more insightful than either the early, or late Wittgenstein.

  33. ” This doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but however we define the scientific method, it has worked remarkably well and I think those who do discuss it publicly should be careful of presenting a picture that makes it seem that we are less certain of our understanding than is actually the case.”

    I think this is the problem, if the thing to be addressed is the public confidence in science generally. I think this approach is backfiring badly. Yes, it is well intended but what the public needs is, first and foremost, a better education in probability. Once the case is presented in terms of probability, and the public understands that our “understanding” is the one by far most likely the correct one, public confidence is restored. Instead what the scientific community is saying is alienating the public because they (erroneously) interpret the “presenting … picture” as a statement of absolute certainty. This is the crux of problem, and the primary reason why the public confidence in science and academia is declining.

  34. Ally,
    I agree that if the public understood probability better, it would help, but I think that is all related to improving understanding of the overall scientific process. I don’t really agree with the latter part of your comment, as I think a lot of scientists provide caveats and uncertainties.

  35. Tom Curtis says:

    Ally, I highly recommend you watch this video on scientific communication:

    In addition to the issue raised by John Oliver of single studies being misrepresented by media, there are at least two further factors in play in the popular presentation of science. First, a refutation of Einstein’s theory of relativity would be big news, while a confirmation of it would not. As a result, studies “overturning” established science are preferentially reported by media seeking to maximize their audience. In the case of public policy relevant science, such as climate science, this results in a media bias towards reporting of IPCC errors, or refutation of the IPCC position; and a neglect of the far more frequent contrarian errors, and confirmations of the IPCC, or refutations of the contrarians. On top of that, some media organizations (the Murdoch press and Fox News in particular) have an active bias against climate science, such that the refutations they publish need not even be science, or even coherent.

  36. Willard says:

    FWIW, Feyerabend could agree with this:

    even if he himself went for alternative therapies.

    The methods he was targetting were based on some kind of logic. Experimental sciences don’t need no damn logic. I mean, just look at how experimentalists argue online.

    It’s hard to be antagonistic to a guy who has a book that starts with a picture of him saying “I’m just a dishwasher.” As always, it’s not impossible.

  37. “I think those who do discuss it publicly should be careful of presenting a picture that makes it seem that we are less certain of our understanding than is actually the case.”

    is as true as:

    “I think those who do discuss it publicly should be careful of presenting a picture that makes it seem that we are more certain of our understanding than is actually the case.”

    Not only averages should be accurate also uncertainties should be accurate, not too big, not too small.

    Statistics is an important tool in science and it would help the public to understand science if the knew more about it, but I am not so sure whether probability helps to say how sure science is about a hypothesis/theory/law/model/etc.

    An interesting example we just discussed here is the climate sensitivity. It is between 2 and 4.5 °C and that is the same range we gave in the 1990s. I would still argue that we are more sure that this is the right range now because we have many more independent lines of evidence and have vetted the methods to compute it much more.

    Was classical mechanics 99% right just before Einstein came? Just a few unexplained experiments and some deviations in parameters. And after Einstein suddenly only 1% right? Not zero because maybe Einstein was wrong. Or 90% right because for most experiments it still works? Not sure this kind of number games help.

    In the right regime classical mechanics is still a great tool to help us understand the world. There will always be unknown unknowns; how likely it is that they will soon pop up is a purely subjective assessment. Whether a deviation is a measurement error, a misunderstanding of a theory, a special case or the door to a new understanding of reality is not something you know before you understand the reasons for the deviation. (Paging Mark Ryan)

  38. Victor,
    Yes, I agree, we should be careful of being both too certain or too uncertain. However, I was really to those who discuss the scientific method, rather than those who discuss the science specifically.

  39. It’s difficult for me to be antagonistic toward an anti-conformist who lived in Berkeley in the ’70s. Of course, I was an even more wee lad then, and may have overly-romantic ideas about the scene back then.

  40. aTTP: I like being startled, just have mixed motives and am worried about my ego being in the way.

    Thanks to Willard for the link to the substance; am reading (skimming would be more accurate) with some interest. Also the xkcd. So why in heck did he say “falsificationist method” when it’s clear he actually does know something about it?

    The attack on Jesuits was disgusting. I wish people didn’t undermine themselves and the rest of us doing that kind of thing.

    I do think the variegated history of how science came into being is of interest, and too easily dismissed. The formal process as it has evolved lends itself to distortion by outsiders, that’s why I mentioned Bach having to support some of his 27 children composing weekly cantatas for a patron.

    If we weren’t stuck in a battle royal with dishonest actors, we could learn from all this. Nowadays, my first thought is “how are the science deniers going to exploit this one”? It removes objectivity.

  41. Ken says:

    Sometimes the air becomes to polluted and muddled. Let’s attempt a cleansing, a clearing of the air, shall we. What do humans do when it comes to expressing and sizing up the world? Two things come to mind. We, “go and see,” and we “sit and think.” Going and seeing, we gather stuff (data, etc.) from the world we inhabit. Then, we might sit and think on the matter or data at hand. Science requires something more so. It requires the “courage to think!” What scientists think and how they think it are much more important than any “method.” If it were simply a method, then we should be able to crank out a “scientific,” algorithm that conducts all the necessary indications and inductions of going and seeing and sitting and thinking. But there’s so much more. There’s, “leaps of the imagination!” There’s having the bravery, like Einstein for instance, to postulate the nonexistence of something (the ether) and then run with it, as he so eloquently demonstrated in 1905. These days, it seems we’re to quick to “can,” everything, i.e. to turn everything into an “algorithm.” Let’s take a breath, and a step back, and enjoy the fact we’re human, we think, we go and see, but above all, we have the courage to think which is more than any machined process will ever do!

  42. Susan,

    Nowadays, my first thought is “how are the science deniers going to exploit this one”?

    Indeed, that is often my first thought. I do sometimes find it surprising that those who seem to claim some expertise in science communication, often say things that are easily exploited.


    If it were simply a method, then we should be able to crank out a “scientific,” algorithm that conducts all the necessary indications and inductions of going and seeing and sitting and thinking.

    Yes, exactly. If we knew in advance precisely what steps to take, it would be easy.

  43. I did philosophy of science as an undergrad and together with history of economics it is among the more valuable courses I took. That said, it was probably completely useless for the majority of my peers who left academia.

    Hans von Storch (used to?) run a post-grad course, which was very popular among PhD students because it taught them how to think about the claims they and others made about the evidence found.

  44. Eli Rabett says:

    Blachowicz is doing little more than trying to carve a piece of the pie for himself and his ilk. It reminds Eli of a three year old playing the why game. Certainly there is nothing in the NY Times piece of any substance.

    Definitions of “justice” and “courage” are social constructs not physical things. Electrons and CO2 atmospheric mixing ratio not so much. While Attic Greeks may have agreed that justice was done when Socrates swallowed his poison, others differ.

  45. Our bearish bunny really did not like the homework assignment. 🙂

  46. Willard says:

    > While Attic Greeks may have agreed that justice was done when Socrates swallowed his poison, others differ.

    This doesn’t contradict the author’s point – socratic dialogs bracket questions about particulars, i.e. “is action A just,” and ask about general concepts, i.e. “what is justice?” In other words:

    [O]ne should be careful of using phrases like the world of forms”. Plato uses them but the contrast he has in mind is not, as one might have thought, a contrast between one set of particular things and then another set completely like it except more perfect, more abstract and located somewhere else, in some heaven his contrast is between the particular and the general. Those questions “what is Justice?”, what is Beauty are general questions, questions about justice and beauty in general. They are not questions about the here and now. That is the contrast we need to understand,

    The guy who’s talking is Myles Burnyeat.

    So it’s quite possible to agree about every occurence of justice without being able to agree on the general definition. How searching for general definitions of abstract concepts can lead astray is more a feature than a bug of the dialogs.

  47. Willard says:

    Start with a Bang’s editorial starts with:

    There are lots of different ways to do science that are equally valid; one scientific method does not necessarily fit all cases.

    I don’t always assert that there’s a scientific method, but when I do, I also say there are lots of different ways to do science, that there’s all equally valid, and that there might not be a one-size-fit all method to do science.

    With editorials like that, the philosophers’ jobs are still safe.

  48. Ethan Allen says:

    Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

  49. Willard says:

    > A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth.

    A quote might be nice.


  50. Willard says:

    The first claim in No Scientific Method, They Say:

    Up to a point, he’s right.

    No wonder we get this Made You Look exercise.


  51. Ethan Allen says:


    I have found at least four articles with similar titles to … “There Is No Scientific Method” …
    There is No Scientific Method

    Click to access Theory.pdf

    There is No Scientific Method
    The Myth of the Scientific Method
    Why There Is No Scientific Method. And Why It Is Not a Problem

    I prefer NOT to discuss “The Scientific Method” myself. Non sequitur as it were. As the author states himself … “Commonly, we may not be able to explain what something is, but we know it when we see it.”

    “In modern usage, sophism, sophist and sophistry are redefined and used disparagingly. A sophism is a specious argument for displaying ingenuity in reasoning or for deceiving someone.[15] A sophist is a person who reasons with clever but fallacious and deceptive arguments.”

    The three things I avoid, appeals to emotion, appeals to authority and special pleading.

  52. David B. Benson says:

    Those who doubt that there is a scientific method ought to read at least the Wikipedia article on the Novum Organum.

    And by the way, the club of baconists is now named The Royal Society.

  53. izen says:

    “What is the scientific method ?”
    Or if there even is one, is a question like what is courage or justice that is a general question with no specific answer. The desire by some to discover a definition, a set of procedures, methods and rules that can be used to test whether something is science is a mistake.

    That no definitive specification can be made of the scientific method does not imply that science as an evolving social and historical process is incapable of providing specific and definitive knowledge. One is a matter of philosophical categories, the other of material utility.

    If it was asserted that the correct answer to the question ;- “What is the Scientific Method ?”
    was “Forty Two”, then people might think it a joke. Or might consider what sort of specific answer could make sense to such a general question. Any answer that omits the process of how Baconists became Popperians, the influence of craftsmen in making more accurate means of measurement, is incomplete.

    When the problem of general questions having no specific answer is raised as a philosophical problem for the credibility of science in the popular media it is almost invariably a Trojan Horse for political and theological dogmas that are threatened by the implications of the expanding scientific knowledge that the method, whatever it is, produces.

  54. James Annan says:

    I’d just like to say that as a mathematician, I did none of the things that you list above in the training of a scientist. Apart from the undergrad and postgrad degree 🙂

  55. James,
    You’ve reminded me that I had intended to say To become a professional scientist – a physicist for example – these days, so as to avoid what you’ve just highighted 🙂

  56. Dikran Marsupial says:

    I don’t think there is a real need to teach scientific method at either undergraduate or postgraduate level. IMHO it is more important to teach good scientific attitudes, such as being self-skeptical, looking for the validity in opposing views (if only as a test of your own position), being (if not dispassionate) rational about the benefits and problems with your work, being comfortable (an behaving properly) working in a team etc. Sadly school education (at least in the UK) seems to have become more business oriented and students are more likely to be taught how to be salesmen and “sell” their ideas, and this has to be overcome to have the right attitude to science (although it is presumably what is wanted for students wanting to go into business rather than science). The right time for learning about the philosophy of science is when you have matured to the point where you are interested and can see how it might be useful, but getting the right attitude provides most of the practical benefits justified by the theory.

  57. Diana says:

    I recommend Maureen Christie´s book: The Ozone Layer: A Philosophy of Science Perspective

  58. mt says:

    “Professor Blachowicz is from Loyola Jesuit Catholic University in Chicago.”

    I myself am adjunct faculty at that University in the Department of Computer Science. I am also ethically Jewish and philosophically Buddhist and in practice a lapsed Unitarian.

    In my experience the Pope has very little influence on the day-to-day activities of the faculty, even though we may in some technical sense be in his employ.

  59. mt says:

    The vehemence of the resistance to Blachowitz baffles me. It seems to me that almost everyone agrees on his fundamental point, which he clarifies (though it was clear to me in the beginning) in a recent addendum (at the same New York Times URL)

    “Some readers claimed that I was denying the existence of a method that science employs. I was not. I was arguing against the claim that only science employs it.”

    “Suggesting that the method science uses is its exclusive property is an inflationary claim that doesn’t serve science well. Science is a form of human knowledge. But there’s more to knowledge than science. The differences, of course, have to be preserved, but we won’t know what the defining differences are until we identify what it is that scientific and nonscientific inquiry have in common. This short article was a modest attempt to explore that question.”

    Does anyone really object to this?

    I will try again to find some commonality among the objections but to be honest my first reaction is that they seem to me to be merely off point.

  60. MT,
    My initial reaction was negative because of the title. I’m still in two minds about the actual article, but I largely agree with the addendum; what we might think of as the scientific method isn’t something that is restricted only to what we think of as science.

    What did you think of this response?

  61. mt says:

    Bruno Latour, recommended by NWycha, is a “social construction” extremist and in my opinion does not understand science as practiced.

    The most interesting thing I know of that he has said is this, which I take as a recantation:

    Here is Sokal on Latour

    I agree with the point made above that philosophers of science (as journalists of science) should have some reasonable exposure to the practice that they elucidate. Blachowicz (author of the NYTimes piece) at least has claim to an undergraduate degree in physics.The tradition in which Latour operates has little in the way of tangency to actual science.

  62. mt,
    You’ve touched on something that I think I was skirting around a little. I’ve been a bit reluctant to be overly critical of ideas related to the philosophy of science (or the history of science). It’s certainly not something about which I have much deep knowledge, and one has to be careful of critiquing things that maybe you don’t fully grasp (which, I think, is what you’re suggesting in your earlier comment).

    On the other hand, there are those who make much stronger claims about science as it is practised now and maybe even about specific areas of science, who appear not to really understand what they are saying. It seems that there is a distinction to be made between those who study it more broadly (the scientific method) and those who try to comment on specific aspects of science (the role of evidence in policy making related to climate change). The latter (from what I’ve seen) can blunder quite spectacularly at times.

  63. mt says:

    ATTP, your link to Chad Orzel here fits in with the pattern as far as I can tell. It basically criticizes the point being made on the grounds that it did not lead to some (unspecified) other point.

    “As a scientist reading along, this positively screams for a “Therefore…” followed by some sort of action item. You’ve made an argument that the scientific method is “only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry,” great. I’m with you on that. And now, what do we do with that information?”

    That doesn’t constitute a refutation. And then

    “I find this incredibly frustrating, in no small part because (as noted above) I wrote a whole book making a similar argument. And I had a pretty clear take-away message in mind when I did that, ”

    which constitutes a typical Reviewer # 3 attitude “why am in not cited here?” and is not a real criticism.

    But the essay answers its own question quite well.

    “I have any number of problems with this, starting with the fact that it feels like he realized he was up against his word limit for the column, and just stopped”

    Well, yes.

    Orzel criticizes Blachowicz for writing 1500 words which he agrees with and not continuing with the remaining 100,000 words of a book which Orzel has written.

    It’s not a critique, it’s sour grapes. It seems to me that Orzel wants a column in the Times too. Well, so do I; I have plenty to say. But that doesn’t constitute a critique of Blachowicz.

    It’s very interesting that Orzel says he has “any number” of criticisms but only provides the one, one which makes little sense. You can’t develop an argument in a column as far as you can in a book. Okay. And?

  64. mt says:

    ATTP: “We do need to be careful of providing ammunition to those who would like to promote the idea that we are less certain about various scientific topics than we are in reality.”

    My response was precisely the opposite. Blachowicz’ article struck me as ammunition AGAINST such people (though of course they will be happy to shallowly twist it if they think of a way).

    Medical practitioners often expect climate statistics to be like medical statistics (controlled experiments, T-tests). Physicists (present company excepted) often expect climate to be reducible to simple and clean models. (The estimable John Baez keeps making this mistake.) Engineers often expect climate science to be amenable to a formal derivation from explicit assumptions. (I myself was immensely frustrated by the failure to meet this expectation when I moved into climate from engineering.)

    Each group has people who will say “I looked into this stuff and it doesn’t look like science to me!”

    The reason for all these divergences from expectations is simple. It’s not because climatology is unscientific. (Climatology is closest in spirit to astrophysics and geology, neither of which is accused of being unscientific because they don’t resemble drug studies or suspension bridge design.)

    The topic at hand has different goals and constraints, and so the methods that are used to pursue understanding are different as well. In short “there is no scientific method”. Rather, there are a multiplicity of methodical approaches based in reason, and each field must make progress in the ways that present themselves at its appropriate level of development.

  65. mt says:

    The title of Jerry Coyne’s strikes me as recursive.

    In particular the high dudgeon at Blachowicz’s “Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed.” is woefully arrogant and shabby.

    So much so, that the critique strikes me as approaching the weakest attempt at epistemic thinking that I can imagine.

    I recommend as a curative the opening pages to H C Van Ness’s introductory textbook on thermodynamics (visible at Google Books), which approaches the history of the law of the conservation of energy with an interesting analogy to candy, and a rumination on how valid theory emerges from evidence as a series of corrections.

    Upon reviewing this interesting exposition, it becomes clear how vapid is Coyne’s critique and how thoroughly he has missed the point that Blachowicz is trying to make.

    I also note that this critique is inconsistent with Orzel’s.

  66. MT,

    Rather, there are a multiplicity of methodical approaches based in reason, and each field must make progress in the ways that present themselves at its appropriate level of development.

    Yes, I very much agree with this. We continually update how we approach problems, based on the techniques and information that is availble. We can’t really write down some simple methods and a set of rules, that everyone should follow at all times (we can have guidelines and expectations, but the approach will change with time).

    I have to also agree with your description of how some people can view climate science (and I agree that the manner in which people undertake climate research does seem very similar to how people undertake astrophysics). I find it incredibly frustrating to encounter some who apply their understanding of their own field to climate science, without recognising the differences. It would certainly be vastly improved if people’s initial reaction was “hmm, maybe there’s a reason they do things differently to what I was expecting”, rather then “they do things differently to how I think they should do things, therefore they must be doing it wrong!”.

  67. mt says:

    There is No Scientific Method – Lee Smolin

    Thanks Ethan. Brief and highly recommended.

  68. Willard says:

    Perhaps we ought to clarify something:

    why title the article “There Is No Scientific Method” then?!

    Because, editors.

    If newspapers were more transparent in their editorial practices, that would be great.


    Not all is rosy in Bacon. For all his merits, he wasn’t very systematic:

    On the one side, then, we have figures like the anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley, who portrays Bacon (whom he calls “the man who saw through time”) as a kind of Promethean culture hero. He praises Bacon as the great inventor of the idea of science as both a communal enterprise and a practical discipline in the service of humanity. On the other side, we have writers, from Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Lewis Mumford to, more recently, Jeremy Rifkin and eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant, who have represented him as one of the main culprits behind what they perceive as western science’s continuing legacy of alienation, exploitation, and ecological oppression.

    Clearly somewhere in between this ardent Baconolotry on the one hand and strident demonization of Bacon on the other lies the real Lord Chancellor: a Colossus with feet of clay. He was by no means a great system-builder (indeed his Magna Instauratio turned out to be less of a “grand edifice” than a magnificent heap) but rather, as he more modestly portrayed himself, a great spokesman for the reform of learning and a champion of modern science. In the end we can say that he was one of the giant figures of intellectual history – and as brilliant, and flawed, a philosopher as he was a statesman.

    Bacon was perhaps the most brilliant TED talker of his times, but only a myth-maker he was.

  69. Willard says:

    > I prefer NOT to discuss “The Scientific Method” myself.

    Me neither. That’s why I simply cite stuff.

    Smolin’s tentative is a good one:

    [T]here are two ethical principles that I think underlie the success of science and I call these the Principles of the Open Future. The first one is that we agree to tell the truth and we agree to be governed by rational argument from public evidence. So when there is a disagreement it can be resolved by referring to a rational deduction from public evidence. We agree to be so swayed.


    The second principle is that when the evidence does not decide, when the evidence is not sufficient to decide from rational argument, whether one point of view is right or another point of view is right, we agree to encourage competition and diversification amongst the professionals in th

    But it doesn’t work: neither principle is exclusive to scientific institutions, and ClimateBall ™ contradicts both at the personal level.


    > Non sequitur as it were.

    For a non sequitur to obtain, one needs an inference, i.e. premises and conclusion. The kind of thing Bacon thought absent from science, incidentally. It’s easier to armwave to a non sequitur than to establish it.

  70. mt says:


    I think Smolin is identifying two features of the scientific ethos. I agree with them. There may be others. They are justified on utilitarian grounds, which is a slippery slope I admit. But they do seem more useful than approaches opposed to them.

    I do not think Smolin is trying to form a sharp epistemic taxonomy that distinguishes between science and not-science. Indeed the question at hand boils down to a claim that such a distinction cannot clearly be made. Perhaps it is this that alarms so many scientists, so much that they respond in high dudgeon to minutiae. It constitutes a threat to an implicit elitist claim.

    That said, I do think there is some sort of epistemic privilege to science. In practice, all of us except the most irrational, even Latour, behave in practice as if this were true. I think we should seek a way to make this privilege clear and understandable.

    But as with so many distinctions, while prototypical cases (this is definitely science, that is definitely not) may be easily identified, the boundary may well be ill-defined and awkward edge cases may be identified. (*cough* string theory *cough*)

    Does this matter? Mathematicians and philosophers spend endless time dissecting edge cases. It fascinates them. We engineers ignore them as unimportant in practice. A few false positives and false negatives on the edge don’t matter. We want to solve problems.

  71. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Smolin wrote “…science works because scientists form communities and traditions based not on a common set of methods, but a common set of ethical principles.”

    I think this is rather wider than the two principles that Smolin gave (and many are likely to be shared by other institutions/groups, and if not ought to be ;o), however this is not what science is, but how science (should) be performed (Kuhn – versus – Popper?).

    Smolin also wrote “Now just in addition a thing that I think is interesting about seeing science that way is that makes science very closely connected to democracy because I think that those same two principles governing the success of democratic societies. ”

    which seems rather wishful thinking, but perhaps recent events have increased my cynicism ;o)

  72. NWycha says:


    I always find it problematic when the critique of Latour or of sociologists in general wades into the territory of “The tradition in which Latour operates has little in the way of tangency to actual science.” (If somehow I have misconstrued your attack of Latour as an attack on social scientists and sociologists, I apologize) Social constructionism is a valid social theory that quite succinctly explains a great deal of science denial, and the rejection of “soft” sciences by “hard” science practitioners, among other social phenomena. The famous critique of Latour by Skoal, not withstanding, has been part of a serious backlash against postmodern thought paints a poor picture of first, what Latour’s background even is (read: not a postmodernist), and second social theory in general.

    Latour’s ” Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Was no recantation, but rather a clarification on why social constructionism has limits for critique. We can’t say, as we typically see in the Great Fake Climate Debate, that climate models are wrong simply because they are merely products of scientists and manipulated data, a real extremist construction perspective. In fact Latour goes on to explain in “Waiting for Gaia” that part of why climate models are so robust, is that we can take the local data and construct, through use of computers and scientific knowledge, a global view that cannot be obtained through observation alone. This is an application of his own Actor Network Theory, against, not even so much constructionist or postmodern, but ethnomethodological.

    A few posts down you state, ” Rather, there are a multiplicity of methodical approaches based in reason, and each field must make progress in the ways that present themselves at its appropriate level of development.” And I believe that to be absolutely the case, and part of the reason I take issue with your attack on Latour and seeming attack on the social sciences. We simply use different methods and different ways of theorizing to attempt to address social problems. Some fail, some do not, but like other sciences, we build off of them, critique them, debate them in the literature, and find out over time how they fit into properly addressing the research question(s), if they even did at all. This is coming from someone who has done both qualitative and quantitative work in my field.

  73. mt says:

    Also via Ethan:

    Why There Is No Scientific Method. And Why It Is Not a Problem – Jean Bricmont

    A bit long-winded for my taste. Eventually he arrives at:

    “The problem is that, for people outside of science, or for scientists outside of their speciality, it is difficult to appreciate whether what scientists sayis true, and also who are the real scientists, versus the false ones. Is evolution true? What about psychoanalysis? What about anthropogenic global warming? Without some idea of what characterizes a science, it is impossible for the non expert to make up his mind. That is why the epistemologies of the second half of the 20th century have had such a deleterious effect on the credibility of science: if there is no conceptual distinction whatsoever between science and non science, then the non expert has either to trust scientists blindly or to fall into a generalized skepticism.”

    That is indeed the question. Bricmont answers himself thus:

    “we must ask the same question to the used car dealer, to the banker that promises a great return on investment, to the politician who says that the end of the crisis is around the corner, to the journalist reporting events in distant lands, as well as to the priest, the psychoanalyst and the physicist: what reasons do you give me to believe what you say rather than to believe that you deceive me or deceive yourself? Let’s call this the skeptical argument.”

    Thus, he rejects a distinction between science and other fields of knowledge, insisting only on a scientific disposition, comparable and compatible to Smolin’s assertions in my opinion. Bricmont fleshes out his discourse in an attempt at a skeptical refutation of his defense of skepticism.

    Compare also Feynman’s dictum “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” That’s real skepticism.

    Of course the so called “climate skeptics” typically fail utterly to practice the discipline of asking themselves how their own claims might be in error. But they are not alone in this failing!

  74. NWycha says:

    Since I don’t think I can edit my post, the last sentence of paragraph two should read “This is an application of his own Actor Network Theory, again (not against), not even so much constructionist or postmodern, but ethnomethodological.

  75. mt says:

    NWycha, indeed I have been extremely unimpressed by any thinker who is in the tradition of Derrida, and to my understanding, Latour is part of such a school of thought. However, I am willing to apply self-skepticism to my belief.

    Your claim “Social constructionism is a valid social theory that quite succinctly explains a great deal of science denial” cries out for a defense. Can you explain what makes it “valid” and how it “explains” science denial in a way that can be tested?

  76. Steven Mosher says:

    “Philosophy is harder than engineers who work at the Boeing Company may presume.”

    ya. having degrees in English and Philosophy before going to work for Northrop.. I got your first hand, here is hand.. experience of both.

    Let me generalize. Engineers love solutions. finality. And what I found was this. At some point in their careers they may have stumbled on some philosophy or what passes for Philosophy — (Rand) and it “solved” a question for them. And they stopped reading. case closed.

    Since I came from Lit and Philosophy I was just used to Open ended never ending conversations… nothing was ever settled.. Coming into engineering I was first shocked..
    and then grew to like the sense of closure that building things brings.

    CFD guys are a PITA.

  77. Dikran Marsupial says:

    “Let me generalize. Engineers love solutions.”

    Does this mean it is now my turn to present an unflattering caricature of some other group? ;o)

  78. Chris says:

    good to see reference to Lee Smolin (who’s “The Trouble With Physics” is a cracking good read!).

    also good that Smolin refers to Feyerabend (who I like as a sort of foil against some of the pompous and self-interested assertion that proper scientific practice ought to follow such and such a set of rules!).

    Of course science has methods – all scientists could sit down and formulate a set of methodologies ranging from general philosophical frameworks to more specific practices that are implicit in their own research fields (and would expect to apply in others). A good general philosophy that is close to one of Smolin’s duo, is that whatever scientists do (researching, publishing, reviewing etc) they do in good faith.

  79. NWycha says:


    I certainly can address that, but it hinges on whether you think that qualitative research in the social sciences can be considered valid. Constructionism views the world as having both subjective and objective realities, but it is not concerned with the objective, but rather how we subjectively create our realities through cognitive processes, Those subjective realities are certainly real things that play into how we view the world around us. In terms of science denial, subjective constructed realities, such as the ideas that scientists are committing fraud to line their pockets (conspiracy) or that the methods scientists use to correct and modify data are faulty, are social constructions that we can unpack through statistical means (Stephen Lewandowsky comes to mind), qualitative means through interview, discourse analysis, textual content analysis, or through mixed methods to understand the underpinnings of how these constructions came about in order to explain some of the reasons why people reject science. I don’t know how to address your idea of testing in this sense, social science is messy at times, as human behavior is quite messy. Repeated research on a topic using different designs is needed to “test” these ideas, and in sociology, we can often find different interpretations when using a different theoretical background as a starting point. On that note, there is also an approach using grounded theory in an attempt to address these flaws in which a researcher will do a qualitative analysis and then work backwards in a way to see how those results fit into the previously related literature.

    Getting back to your idea of “there are a multiplicity of methodical approaches based in reason, and each field must make progress in the ways that present themselves at its appropriate level of development”, maybe the issue here stems from a place where you are putting the burdens of other fields onto that of social science in which there is no unifying grand theory of social explanation. Using a constructionist perspective allows us to see what factors contribute or predict science denial, it certainly isn’t the only way to go about it, but that also doesn’t make it invalid by any means. Often social problems have more than one way of analyzing them.

    I hope I have at least given some level of an answer to your question. I have to admit, I feel a little on edge about all this, because my goal wasn’t to attack or to be attacked. I was trying to as my perspective as a researcher in a field to a point of view I consider to be worthy of discussion in the grand scheme of the topic.

  80. Willard says:


    The two features of the scientific ethos Smolin underlined are supposed to explain science’s success. Yet they pertain to the “Western” (for lack of a better term) ethos itself. They’re basic features college students need to learn by rote and regurgitate to pass their first philosophy 101 exams around here. Smolin’s explanation of science’s success could actually explain the success of the “Western” societies. It’s basically an extension of the Greek Miracle myth.

    If I had a beef with Smolin’s rendering of that myth, it would be the moralism behind it. He’s appealing to the INTEGRITY ™ of scientists. This is more than incorrect and naive. It transposes descriptions and explanations into prescriptions – “you are not a scientist” or “your work is unscientific” become social shaming devices.

    Just take how you defend Blachowicz or attack Latour. The former has undergraduate studies in sciences, which means he did not do much more than read textbooks, mimick lab practices, derive equations, and become 30K poorer than any French boy who did the same. The latter did some sociology and some anthropology for real. Incidentally, Francis Bacon, the grand dad of modern science, did neither – he was a politician, a public intellectual, a futurologist, a rich man, and a man of disorganized pithy sayings. The truest TED talker of his time.

    All these are ad hominem arguments. They don’t abide by Smolin’s first principle. Does it mean we’re irrational?

  81. Ethan Allen says:


    “For a non sequitur to obtain, one needs an inference, i.e. premises and conclusion. The kind of thing Bacon thought absent from science, incidentally. It’s easier to armwave to a non sequitur than to establish it.”

    I do have an opinion on what The Scientific Method is. I don’t want to express what my personal POV is though.

    I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of deniers express what there POV’s are wrt The Scientific Method. Many a time through the quoting of dead people.

    Yet, I seriously doubt than very few have done the full scope of The Scientific Method, from the analytical to the numerical to the experimental to the prototype/field. I happen to think I’ve done so,

    I do see art in The Scientific Method, meaning that it can’t be audited or follow ASTM/ISO standards. Art itself is popular or trendy or crosses normal societal boundaries much more so then scientific practices or practitioners.

    The essay which is the subject of this thread reads like a movie critic review, in that it is much easier to criticize then to do. I did like the movie Interstellar, even though their so called “scientific input” for the knee deep gravity ~ 1 rho (fluid) ~ 1 totally scorched their so called tidal wave, That part wasn’t scientific at all, but that’s where you suspend belief and just try to enjoy the damn movie.

    As to ClimateBall, should I employ your “winning” strategy in say a casino or the lottery, after all, someone does win the lottery, but only if they play. 😦

  82. Chris says:

    All these are ad hominem arguments. They don’t abide by Smolin’s first principle. Does it mean we’re irrational?
    well yes, but Smolin is talking about science..not about saying stuff on blogs!

    One needn’t assume that a description of successful science as having honesty and good faith as (non-exclusive) characteristics necessarily implies an “appeal to integrity”. These are simply characteristics. One addresses scientific evidence in good faith, not necessarily because it’s moral to do so (one might take this POV), but because to do so is one of the routes to success.

    For example, it may be tempting to cheat a little in adjusting one’s experimental observations so as to support a preconceived expectation – however from the perspective of a successful research programme it’s likely better in the long run to swallow the disappointment of an “unsuccessful” outcome (and reflect on what this might be actually telling you!) – so we don’t cheat not because of an issue of integrity (‘though this is part of it of course), but because it’s not very productive to do so in the long run….this may be quite a hard lesson for a scientist to learn btw…

  83. Willard says:

    Dear Ethan,

    A ClimateBall ™ winning strategy, like the scientific method, would indeed be a good idea. A suboptimal strategy would be to claim not appealing to emotion or authority and being caught doing so. I’m not sure it’s a losing one, however.

    I agree with suspending belief. Speaking of which, Husserl was there first.

  84. Ethan Allen says:

    The Middle Ages was the best
    Of times to be a rat:
    You could point to a man with plague
    And say, “I gave him that.”

    Rats have been in every war,
    And yet where is their statue?
    When you bring the subject up,
    There’s silence, then an “Achoo!”

    Why can’t we put “rat”
    Into lots more words?
    Is it so crazy,
    Or all that ratsurd?

    What more’s a man need
    Than a scotch and a rat,
    And maybe a gun
    To rest on his lap.

    (pinched from Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey)

    The wise man can pick up a grain of sand and envision a whole universe. But the stupid man will just lay down on some seaweed and roll around until he’s completely draped in it. Then he’ll stand up and go: Hey, I’m Vine Man.

  85. Chris says:

    I’ll go a little bit further with that since it seems to me that Smolin’s first “principle” is not only a good one, but a key one.

    Speaking personally, I’m not actually that skeptical. I read tons of stuff in my research field (and sometimes in fields – climate science, for example – that I’m just interested in). I generally read stuff and absorb it with the assumption of good faith on the part of the authors. I don’t really see how one could do science otherwise. That doesn’t mean that I consider that everything that I read will be correct. But unless there is something clearly wrong (not so common in my research field) or that is contrary to my particular views on a subject, I take it on trust and it gets absorbed at some level into my knowledge bank. That seems to me to be one of the key characteristics of science that make it successful. It underpins the possibility of objective progression in a research field.

  86. mt says:

    Chris, yes, you trust that the author you trust has exercised sufficient rigor (self-doubt) and honesty. And you trust that if he or she has not, they will be caught out and their work will be unlikely to capture your attention. That is, you delegate your skepticism to the community as a whole.

    Trust may break down because of dishonest actors, or from a lack of competence within a field, or a failure of social cohesion among consensus-forming groups. In mature sciences such things are extraordinarily rare.

    If trust within the field merely **appears to outsiders** to break down, you might still have a science but it will appear from the outside not to be one. This is the deniers’ game plan in a nutshell.

    This is exactly why I often refer to “networks of trust”. When the political class no longer knows whom to trust in a given body of science, that science might as well not exist for policy purposes.

    Climatologists in the public eye are not necessarily those with the best reputations within the field, and sometimes they are people whose reputations within the field are very poor. This applies to other sciences that are caught in controversy as well. In these cases, the network of trust has been broken at the science/policy interface, and I’d say that in many cases it has been sabotaged.

  87. mt says:

    NWycha, I hate to get all Popperian on you, but there is a point to it that can’t be dismissed altogether.

    I can’t argue against your claims because they seem to me too vague to admit of refutation.

  88. Mike Pollard says:

    Not sure if A F Chalmers “What Is This Thing Called Science?” has been mentioned above, 88 posts is a bit too much to read through quickly. This book is based on lecture notes Chalmers used to teach the history and philosophy of science to students at the University of Sydney in the 1970s. Its been revised several times, my copy is the 3rd edition (1999). I’ve not finished reading it, so I won’t review it except to say that its been instructive for me and I’ve been doing research for longer than the book has been in print. Its contents can be viewed using the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon.

  89. mt says:

    In defense of Bacon, he could not have “done” science as he was busy struggling to invent it.

    It is important to understand that centuries of thrashing this stuff out separate us from him. While visionaries are a dime a dozen nowadays, they were more rare and valuable at the time.

  90. Chris says:

    Yes, that pretty much hits the mark mt (your comment at July 11, 2016 at 5:44 pm)

  91. mt says:

    Willard, quoting myself at 3:07 PM London time above “I do not think Smolin is trying to form a sharp epistemic taxonomy that distinguishes between science and not-science.” If you wish to call this the western collegiate ethic, so be it. I think it is empirically justified on utilitarian grounds. What it cannot be is a taxonomic distinction between science and non-science. But I still think it is a good description of arguing in good faith.

    As I mentioned to you last time we chatted, what interests me in philosophy of science is the epistemic question. How do we decide what we know?

    I find Latourism is not germane to the epistemic question. Social criticisms of science typically devalue the **epistemic** value of what Eli has called the Coherence, Consilience, Consensus triad.

    (I disagree with Eli about Blachowicz but agree about the 3 Cs)

    Notice that the mechanisms by which truth is identified are largely social. So there is a lot of work to be done on sociological critiques of science as they relate to epistemology. But I don’t don’t see much of that in the Latourist industry.

    On the other hand, Blachowicz addresses the epistemic question directly. One may complain that he didn’t go far enough in his editorial. But he’s heading in the right direction.

  92. izen says:

    Most of the time the discussion of ‘The scientific method’ is the preserve of a tiny minority of scientists who want to do philosophy and philosophers who want to, do, science. Divorced from any specific example it is a companion of that other epistemological puzzle of whether Mathematics is Platonic, (the discovery of external absolutes) or Constructionist, (the invention of mental concepts). Both subjects are fascinating, and skirt dangerously close to Angel/pinhead ratio discussions. 😉

    Invariably when the discussion of science epistemology enters the mainstream or gets a more general exposure it comes with an agenda. Often it is a category error crammed, meta-level mixing mess of hand waving that expresses wonder at the Uncertainty inherent in the definitions of science, or the similarities in the cognitive tools used by all people throughout life.

    Some times the implication is left as a ‘Therefore….’ …Science is as fallible and arbitrary as our tastes and opinions.
    Sometimes the transition is made back from the general to target the specific, whether that is evolution, vaccination or climate science.
    Whenever the philosophy of science makes it outside the Ivory tower, look for its anti-science chaperone.

  93. NWycha says:


    That’s fine, I wasn’t looking for an argument anyways. 🙂 Another time. Thanks for the discussion.

  94. guthrie says:

    IT became clear to me a few years after my chemistry degree that we would have been far better served by a proper, calculated exposure to the experimental method and philosophy of science at university. Reading about it all suddenly made a lot of things at university (A chemistry degree at what was then thought to be a pretty good university, one now unfortunately famous only for some famous person having gone there) make sense, only because our lecturers weren’t very good at discussing things, we hadn’t been told why they were as they were.

    I’m not talking about an entire lecture course either, but certainly 5 hours or such of examples of it and discussion would be a long way towards making things clear.
    It would also equip people to discuss science better in the outside world.

  95. Willard says:

    > [Bacon] could not have “done” science as he was busy struggling to invent it.

    It is safe to say that Archimedes or Chaldean astronomers had a less busy schedule than Bacon, who was quite busy designing a New Atlantis, which even the Royal Society found a bit over-the-top:

    There’s a terrific laius pp. 472.


    > I still think it is a good description of arguing in good faith.

    I think too, but arguing in good faith is neither necessary nor sufficient to do science. It sure helps as an ideal. It also helps cooking, accounting, and even poetry. However, scientific results should be immune to bad faith – at minimal speed, science marches on one funeral at a time.

    The missing ingredient in our “But method” discussion pertains to the point of science: understanding the world. What’s so special about it is that it elaborates explanations that work. To get good explanations, one needs to focus on results more than processes. The process itself matters, but ain’t special to science – lots of artists are as rigourous as lots of scientists.

    Science doesn’t require any good damn faith. It just needs to work. And it does, in the end.

  96. Excellent discussion, lots of interesting material.

    A layperson may not be able to evaluate science, but it’s easy to spot garbage, politics, lies, and all. It stinks. (Schopenhauer provides a handy list: .)

    As to Dr. Blachowitz’s headline, it is duplicated in his opening argument, so he doesn’t get a pass on that.

  97. Willard says:

    In fairness, Susan, you got to admit that the author clarifies well enough what he had in mind:

    I was immediately struck by the similarities between his editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

    OTOH, it clearly indicates that the editors kept his suggested title. They should not have, at least not without adding a lede. Without a lede, readers need to read that opening argument to understand where the author is heading.

  98. Thanks Willard for your perspective(s). The poem you cited at Rabett’s is remarkable; I will be looking for more from Richard Wilbur. It is annoying, since questions about how science develops are both reasonable and interesting, that we have a political environment where such questions will not be treated honestly by people of bad faith. My father and I have talked (I should rather say, I listened, though he’s 92 he’s a hot ticket on issues like this) at length about it. He’s reading Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (Amir Alexander) and at first was impressed, but now is getting a little bored by it (his standards are high). It talks about several of the dramatis personae mentioned above.

  99. Perhaps there needs to be a definition of “bad faith”. I’d agree knowledge needs to work upside down and inside out, but professional denial (and its dupes) and killing the messenger tactics are counterproductive. The only proper observation I can add to the mix is from teaching people how to draw, which is revealing about habits and thought and character (not to mention eyesight and hand-eye coordination or other practical handicaps such as posture). The best scientists showed up as honest, humble about knowledge, curious, and hardworking, and not looking for magic or secrets. They stood out in the integrity stakes.

  100. David B. Benson says:

    Kepler was a contemporary of Bacon. Was Kepler a role model for Bacon? Accounts view him as a Christian natural philosopher although I believe his title was court mathematician, this of course including astrology.

  101. Lots of points here interesting to me, as I am currently doing a research degree in philosophy of science, having been a practising chemistry researcher and teacher many years ago.

    I think there is a common logic of scientific discovery (as Popper entitled his seminal work) but no “method”, only individual methods of different areas of science, which develop as knowledge develops.

    There is more to that logic that Popper failed to explore, because of the limitations of his outlook (coming from the “problem of induction”, and confusion about definitions).

    I think that philosophy of science has a number of problems, although my views on this may change as I read more:

    – Too much emphasis on historical examples and too little on understanding problems that scientists are tackling right now.
    – Too much emphasis on physics and especially on grand set pieces like Galileo’s, Newton’s and Einstein’s situations, which skews interpretations of scence.
    – Confusing the logic of science with sociology of science and psychology of scientists (the latter are at least in principle sciences, not philosophy, subject to the same errors and defects as other branches of those sciences). The question of how science hangs together and gains reliability logically is a separate one from how scientists think and actually work together and compete to build that body of knowledge.
    – and more…

  102. Eveningperson,
    Thanks for the comment. Some interesting points.

    I think this is a good point

    The question of how science hangs together and gains reliability logically is a separate one from how scientists think and actually work together and compete to build that body of knowledge.

    I think this is related to what I was trying to suggest. Scientists themselves can have a very good understanding of the technical aspects of their own research. However, our confidence in our understanding of a particular scientific issue isn’t only because we believe people have carried out a technically correct, rigorously checked piece of research. It’s also got to do with how consistent the results are from different lines of evidence, and how the picture is converging towards some kind of consensus. I suspect that those embedded in the field can appreciate the development of a consensus, but may find it hard to analyse how it is achieved in some kind of formal way.

  103. guthrie says:

    Eveningperson- your list of stuff about philosophy of science sounds more like you’ve been reading Kuhn and some other stuff from decades ago. I’m pretty sure it has moved on a lot since then. Have you read “What is this thing called science” by Chalmers? WHich is a bit old now, but still useful. Or “Philosophy of Science” by Alexander Bird? Or, since you are doing a research degree, are there much better more recent academic discussions out there and I’m just needlessly patronising you?

    This also reminds me of the complaint about history of chemistry I heard recently, which is that it’s been taken over by historians. WHich is something I agree with, it has rather been historianised, which can lead to imbalances in what is studied and how it is studied and a loss of focus on the science. But then histories of science written by scientists too often degenerated into discussions of minutiae and function and ignored the social and psychological aspects.

  104. WMC,
    So, not even the critics get it right?

  105. guthrie says:

    ATTP – it’s why historians of science are getting more vocal these days, they are fed up with people reading old erroneous works or making things up to suit themselves.

  106. Yes. Kepler is far more complex than anyone appreciates. If you read to the end of that post, I’m 3/4 of the way through the book he recommends. There will be a post on it when I’ve finished, in another year or two :-).

  107. Willard says:

  108. Pingback: On and against method and process – Critical Angle

  109. Pingback: On and against method and process – Enjeux énergies et environnement

  110. Dennis Horne says:

    The problem I have with deniers is, often they say climate scientists do not follow the scientific method.

    My view, as a science-trained non-scientist, is the scientific method is what scientists say it is. If a scientist’s work has been studied, evaluated and deemed acceptable by his peers then he has practised and met the requirements of the scientific method.

    But no, they cling to some mythical model that never had a life of its own; throwing a Popper in the works.

  111. Pingback: The Scientific Method – Science and Theology

  112. Rich Brown says:

    I actually agree with the title of the NYT article that the scientific method doesn’t exist – at least not in the sense that I think it is often assumed to. I also think that studying basic philosophy of science could be beneficial to many scientists.

    I took an extra year to study philosophy of science for a year at medical school, I now work as a medical doctor and have an interest in medical research. Whilst medicine is not usually considered a “pure” science, discussion of the “scientific method” often crops up. This is usually as part of attempts to differentiate science from pseudo-science. The assumption usually made is that research/beliefs based on science are ones that have come about through use of the scientific method. Knowing how to differentiate science from “pseudo-science”, is obviously important for doctors who want to practice scientific medicine. Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily that straightforward, and, to my mind, this “demarcation problem” (as it’s known in philosophy of science) is also of practical importance to practising scientists, and a good example of why scientists studying some philosophy of science would be a good thing.

    Like doctors, many scientists I’ve spoken to posit that science is that which properly utilises the scientific method. I think the problem with the phrase “the scientific method” in this context is that it seems to suggest that there is a single underlying process for discovering truth or building theory, a single criterion (or set of criteria) that, are necessary and sufficient for an activity to be classed as science/scientific. I often hear popper’s falsification cited; xkcd did a comic (“unscientific”) stating that it was the testing of ideas by experimentation.

    Most philosophers of science now believe that there is no single such set of criteria that will be present in all science and absent in non-science, and that what is known as science actually employs various methodologies. For example, the process of Inference to the Best Explantion, (abduction, best explicated by Peter Lipton) does not involve falsification or experimentation, however many authors would agree it to be an accurate description of the form of the theory of natural selection. Similarly, taxonomic classification might not involve falsification or experimentation but still represents a cornerstone of zoology and would not be considered a pseudoscience.

    The lack of a simple, straightforward mechanism for differentiating science form non-science is fairly unattractive to a lot of scientists. It appears to question science’s claims to truth and is often misunderstood as a form of relativism or scientific anti-realism. However this needn’t be the case – acknowledging the demarcation problem doesn’t imply that science isn’t valid, just that the theories, beliefs, claims and methods that science produces/utilises need to be evaluated on their own epistemic merits, the process of evaluation varying depending on the nature and context of the claim. It isn’t doesn’t boil down to a single fundamental process (such as “falsifiable” or “test ideas by experiment”) as the phrase “scientific method” seems to imply.

    This may feel like a messier position to be in than many scientists are used to, and makes defending science less straightforward. However in reality it makes defending science possible, and should also encourage reflection on why we science is done in the ways it is and ultimately should lead to better, stronger science.

    It’s well known that less than 200 years ago “scientists” were known as “natural philosophers” and the distinction between the two disciples was a lot less clear. I wouldn’t argue that we should return to considering the two one and the same, I do think that the endeavours of both scientists and philosophers will be enhanced by better understandings of each other’s fields. For a really great, short and readable and relevant introduction to the philosophy of science I’d recommend James Ladyman’s “Understanding Philosophy of Science”.

  113. Rich,
    Interesting comment, thanks. I agree that science is messier than many people realise. I suspect most scientists realise this but that the issue is those who have some knowledge of the philosophy os science, but not experience of actually practicing science, who make strong pronouncements about how things should work, without really understanding how they actually work.

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