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SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Scientific method is important in scientific courses. Yet it is absent from most textbooks and lacking in the experience of most students. Therefore, an abstract of scientific method is presented here. Keep in mind that scientists may use quite different words in presenting much the same thing.

A short definition of scientific method is:

OBSERVE - HYPOTHESIZE - TEST.

This is the experimental method. It is objective. A scientist does not decide how things should be, but observes how things are.

Of course, this definition is incomplete. How one analyzes this process and makes conclusions is of basic importance to scientific method. Analysis often includes a syllogistic procedure, deductive and inductive reasoning/generalizing. The criteria for truth are fundamental even before analysis. One such listing, presumably complete in human affairs is presented here:

CRITERIA FOR "TRUTH"

1. Faith, divine revelation   

5. Intuition (hunches, axioms)

2. Skepticism

6. Pragmatism (that which works is true)

3. Tenacity

7. Empiricism (sensory experience)

4. Authority (appeal to)

8. Rationalism (pure logic and math)

Scientific method strongly emphasizes empiricism and rationalism over the others. Nevertheless, the others do play a role in scientific method. Intuition, for example, includes the "AH HA!" or "Eureka!" discovery or sudden mental revelation in which one's mind now perceives a new or different fit or solution of pieces of a puzzle or problem. Skepticism is a necessary ingredient to enable us not only to question crackpot ideas, but also to abandon our past preferred theories when a better, more inclusive one turns up. This, indeed, is a major difference between science and belief systems/religions. Science in contrast to religion admits error when it is demonstrated. Belief systems or most "ideologies" emphasize faith relying on knowledge from mystic or esoteric insights to one individual. Science concerns phenomena that are observable by all, allowing experimental results to be replicated. Therefore, there is a constant winnowing and sifting for a better fit of observations and experimental results to one or another hypothesis or theory.

This means that scientific "truth" is always wrong (!!) when compared to the concept of "absolute" truth. Concomitantly, scientific truth (hypothesis) usually is correct in context of current knowledge.

Authors of textbooks and scientists often do use language that makes their statements sound like dogma. They are simplifying the approximation of true knowledge into phrases that mistake the approximation for the true situation (making a paradigm). Generally, any model is better than none. Current "dogma" is expected to change. When more data are available, a more explicit and inclusive hypothesis or theory can be stated. Since several hypotheses may explain known observation, how does one choose among them? Science employs William of Occam's razor/Law of Parsimony/Law of Economy of Hypotheses: Use the simplest hypothesis that explains all the data. Therefore, a tentative acceptance of a scientific theory is appropriate so long as we are ready to revise the theory if it fails some test.


The scientific attitude is the critical attitude. Dogmatism is pseudoscientific. Science often begins with criticizing "myths" or "dogma" -- testing or trying to "falsify" the currently accepted notion or hypothesis. Science passes on theories, but also a critical attitude towards them. The critical attitude, the tradition of free discussion of theories with the aim of discovering their weak spots so that they may be improved upon, is the attitude of reasonableness, of rationality*. (after Karl Popper 1963, "Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities" Proceedings Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 22: 964.)

*The first school not mainly concerned with the preservation of a dogma was founded by the Greek Thales. This foundation became a tradition of critical discussion in Greek philosophy.


To reiterate: when using scientific method, one will always be wrong, but one will be correct in context. More data eventually will require a more inclusive hypothesis. An instructive example is the Law of Gravitation by Sir Isaac Newton. As long as one stays on earth and avoids the most sensitive instruments in physics., there is no reason to use any other theory. However, phenomena off earth such as the bending of light rays around the sun, are not explained by Newton's law. Einstein's Law of Gravitation fits these observations much better and also explains phenomena on earth. So now, Einstein's law is used.

"Truth" in science is relative. It is synthetic. It is synthesized relative to the parameters of an experiment. It is, thus, true within the context of the parameters tested. Often, results are extrapolated and hypothesized to hold true beyond the limits of the parameters tested. We constantly or sporadically "test" that truth with new experiments and logic.

Philosophers would rather use words and phrases like valid to replace "truth" and non-sequitur for certain kinds of false statements. Some people are unwilling to use the word truth in a relative sense. Therefore, they would rather avoid it altogether and substitute words or phrases such as "correct thinking". "Correct thinking" in turn has an Orwellian or totalitarian connotation of forced thought patterns. It is unlikely that people will ever completely agree in this abstract area of word meanings and usages. Language may limit our philosophy.

Perhaps, we could list concepts that characterize scientific endeavor:

Observation-hypothesizing-testing   

Repeatability

Reasoning

Parsimony

Skepticism

Generalization...

But these will always be incomplete, and also require extrapolation and expansion. In bridging the gap between the more esoteric philosophy of science and common word usage, perhaps we need to keep the word the people are generally used to, "truth", until something better comes along.

From Miller, Wilmer J. , 1991, Survey of Genetics 2nd Ed. 1991, Ginn Press, pp. ix-x. Modified 29 Nov 98

 

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