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.