THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD.


Method is the dressmaker of reality.



In this essay, I shall describe in some detail the way scientists use the scientific method. As I pay tribute to the remarkable powers of this method, I shall also consider its limitations. Finally, I shall briefly describe some other non scientific but, nonetheless, eminently valid encounters with reality.

The terminology about science is somewhat confusing. For instance, we come across the expressions, natural science and scientific positivism, suggesting that we also have some kind of unnatural science and scientific negativism as well. Of course, we only have science. We also come across the words, science and technology, as if these two were inseparable. The truth is that they are so different in scope and meaning that they should not be mentioned together at all. The aim of scientific the investigation is to obtain knowledge for its own sake. The aim of technology, or applied science, is to profit from scientific knowledge.

We hear often enough the expression “science tells us”. That is very strange, because science is not someone or something to say anything at all. Scientists, on the other hand, are very talkative people. They pursue the communication of their discoveries with passion. So, instead of saying that science tells us this or that, we should accurately report on the discoveries of a specific scientist who, obviously, also has a name. There is no such thing as “science tells us” even when we are dealing with a strong consensus of a scientific community. The consensus is an experience of sharing knowledge, and it is in the minds of those who do the sharing. In itself, consensus has no independent existence or power.
This last remark seems to run contrary to the idea that consensus, or what we may call the majority opinion, provides us with something special. After all, does not consensus of many improve upon the quality of knowledge over and above the abilities of a single person? Let us consider this for a moment. Consensus may provide me with a sense of support, a feeling that I am not alone in what I think is true, but these have nothing to do with the quality of knowledge. The reason for this is simple enough. Knowledge is fundamentally personal and limited. Even the so called “big picture” is just as personal and limited as any other partial knowledge. By the way, the history of science is studded with general agreements about misinterpretations and even errors. Take, for example, the nearly universal acceptance of blending inheritance and of the inheritance of acquired characters in the nineteenth century. Or recall the even more prevalent geocentric cosmology that lasted through centuries from Aristotle to Galileo. There was certainly no lack of consensus about these issues at the time. They were nonetheless erroneous, and they greatly hindered the process of finding the truth. The quality of knowledge was then and is now just as personal as knowledge itself.

The observation that science is a personal, individual venture is further strengthened by the following example. There are many people who are engaged in scientific inquiry. We call them scientists. What they discover is scientific knowledge. The bulk of this knowledge is contained and presented in the many books, and scientific journals we find in libraries all over the world. This information is available to anyone who cares to read it. Left alone, this library material is inert knowledge, and it will remain such unless someone takes the trouble to read it and understand it. When this happens, scientific knowledge becomes personal and meaningful, but at the same time it becomes also limited to the abilities of the person who carries this knowledge. The fact that personal knowledge is limited creates a rather inter- esting paradox. Scientific knowledge is in the heads of individuals, and there is no one who knows it all. To be an expert means to have a lot of partial knowledge, and that is the best we can do. It is like knowing one’s way in the woods at a particular place, and to have no first hand knowledge about the rest of the forest. Others know other places, and there is a great deal of overlap and sharing of what we know. It is the scientific community who knows it all, but then we are back to the paradox because knowledge that must be personal and partial to make it come about in the first place, can never become impersonal and complete. The scientific community is not a mysterious entity over and above a group of interdependent, but nonetheless individual scientists. It is the individual’s effort that makes scientific knowledge grow, and It is the individual who becomes an expert and speaks with authority.

Most of the knowledge I call my own is shared knowledge. I went to school and did much reading and listening to obtain it. This process of learning depends on many things, but primarily it depends on my willingness to learn, and on the willingness of others to obtain and communicate their knowledge with me. Besides communication, the interdependence of shared knowledge requires a great deal of trust and integrity. Knowledge remains barren without communication, while lack of integrity can be outright damaging. Remember the infamous case of the Jansses’s Report, and the work and influence of Lysenko. In the former case, racial prejudice, in the latter, Marxist ideology were more important than scientific truth. The willingness to share knowledge and to do it with integrity are also personal qualities of individuals.

The nature of scientific knowledge is determined by the method we use to obtain it. The scientific method is a powerful, dialectic process of discovery. It has several stages or steps, each with its special characteristics, powers and limitations. The mainspring of the scientific endeavor is the desire to know. Putting it plainly, scientists are very curious people. It all begins with observation and description of natural phenomena. During this process, many questions arise demanding answers. As the scientist becomes more familiar with the materials observed, the scene is set for some educated guesses as tentative answers to the questions. This is the stage when a hypothesis is put forward. The next stage is the experimental phase of inquiry. The experiment is set up with care to lessen the probability of ambiguous results. Finally, the results of the experiment are statistically evaluated reaching a conclusion in terms of scientific knowledge. The scientific method is a powerful tool of discovery because it definitely leads to knowledge. Even if the results of the experiment refute the original hypothesis, one gets closer to the truth by knowing what is not true. At other times the results may fully support the original ideas, or they may indicate the need for revision and modification of the hypothesis. Be as it may, the process of discovery through the scientific method is always progressive and rewarding.
Apart from being powerful, the scientific method has also certain limitations, which mostly cluster around some preconceived notions, and follow from the restrictive nature of observation. There are, for example, the preconditioning effects of all that a person already knows. The questions I ask depend on what I have observed, and what I observe is easily biased by the method of observation and by my expectations. The nature of my questions will influence the hypothesis I put forward, and that will affect the way I design my experiments. It is a noble effort to aim at objectivity and to keep an open mind. Still at best, objectivity can be only partially achieved within the limits determined by the characteristics of observation and by the nature of experimental design.

Gaps and errors in the fabric of one’s scientific knowledge may hinder, slow down, and even mislead the process of inquiry. Sometimes, this kind of handicap becomes firmly established among most members of a scientific community stifling the right approach to discovery for decades and even for centuries. Investigators, who were on the right track, often had to work against the prevalent views of their time, as Galileo, Darwin, and Mendel have done.

The restrictive nature of observation, which characterizes the first step in the scientific method, creates another, and a more serious handicap. All scientific studies are limited to the sensory world. We have to see, touch, smell, taste, and hear what we observe. Curiously, sensory perception is a personal affair that has a great deal of subjectivity about it. In addition, the reality of the world that filters through our senses is totally material in character. In science we study the sensory, material world. We cannot resolve this fundamental limitation, not even with the help of technology. Each sense organ has a certain range beyond which much of the material world remains hidden. We may extend the range of our senses by inventing gadgets, such as the telescope, the microscope, time lapse photography and many others. Yet, all these extended observations still remain within the domain of sensory perceptions.

Besides being restricted to the material sensory world, the scientific method implies also the need to carry out experiments on a quantifiable basis. Care in the way we design an experiment is important. As a rule, we use a large sample to lessen sampling error. We randomly divide the sample into two groups, the experimental and the control groups. We expose both groups equally to all the factors that may have an effect on the outcome of the expepriment, while we expose the experimental group alone to the factor whose effect we want to asses. Finally we compare the two groups. The evaluation of experiments requires statistical analysis, and so does the comparison of observations. That is why scientific knowledge is quantitative.

To sum this up, the scientific method reveals to us the material world of our senses in terms of both, objective and subjective characteristics. Our approach to inquiry is conditioned by what we already know and by the culture in which we live. The knowledge obtained by the scientific method is quantitative. These characteristics of the method are powerful in revealing a great deal about ourselves and about the world that surrounds us. At the same time, they also impose on us some limitations of the inverstigative process and they define the nature of scientific knowledge. Since we begin with observation and end with knowledge, the scientific method is inductive.

There are a number of other, legitimate approaches to reality besides the scientific inquiry. There is, for example, the creative moment of the aesthetic experience, in which the artist actively expresses through powerful emotions the inner perception of reality. This creative, aesthetic moment is exquisitely alive and real. Or think of the experience of the philosophical reflection in which the mind coincides with itself in the same act of knowing, and actually lives the moment of awareness. This reflexive experience through the method of deductive reasoning is a rich source of knowledge. Another legitimate approach to reality is provided by the normative quality of our experiences filtered through soome valid criteria of morality. After all, we are what we do, and what we do is fundamentally influenced by our values. Finally, a fourth, legitimate approach to reality is the faith experience in which we believe the Word of God. For those who have faith, this experience is a unique source of knowledge obtained from the very source of all reality.

Some may say that, apart from the scientific, all the other approaches to reality are too subjective to be meaningful. This objection will not stand up because all the experiences that I have mentioned here, including the scientific, have their share of subjectivity, and at the same time, all of them provide an objective reality experience. Of course, by reality I simply mean the way things are to you and to me. Those who would say that there is no other experience of reality but the scientific, grossly and unjustifiably underestimate the depth and the richness of the total human experience.

 

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