On the mistaken view that there is something especially sciency about the so-called scientific method

I heard it again on the radio today as I was driving around. The story was about a new science curriculum to be introduced in public schools. The problem with the existing curriculum is that kids are getting the idea that being a scientist means reading lots of textbooks and memorizing stuff. “They are thinking that science is history,” the person being interviewed said.

Since the person who said this has been to school for a great many years, I’m guessing there is something wrong with the existing history curriculum as well. I don’t think there is any career, inside or outside of education, that requires reading lots of textbooks and memorizing stuff. (Well, okay, here’s the exception: professional Jeopardy contestant.) Textbooks are always a consequence of learning (fortunate/unfortunate) – not the business of it. When it comes to the business of learning, science, technology, and math are not really distinct from history, literature, or philosophy.

I tried to make this point once as a guest speaker in an anthropology class. The teacher had the quite laudable goal of wanting to show her students different approaches to knowledge, so she invited me, a philosopher, to come in and describe how we do things over in the humanities side of the woods. I tried to show that generating or discovering knowledge works pretty much the same way wherever you go. (I also tried to convince them that scientists live in social and cultural circumstances, and the theories they come up with sometimes have more to do with those influences than with strict allegiance to the scientific method, but that’s another story.)

So the “scientific method” runs something like this. You come across something that seems interesting, and you poke around in it for a bit. After a while you make a guess about what’s going on. Then you think about what else you should be seeing if your guess is right, and you go looking for it. (Alternatively, you figure out what should not be happening, and see if it is happening nonetheless.) If what should be happening isn’t happening, or if what shouldn’t be happening is happening, then – sorry! – your guess is wrong and you should try again. Repeat.

There’s nothing especially sciency about that. Suppose you are reading Moby Dick, and you start thinking that the fact that the whale is white might be significant somehow. So you make a guess: maybe it is supposed to represent God, or maybe the idea of white supremacy. So with that idea in mind, you go back into Moby Dick and look for other passages that either support or do not support your interpretation. You research what the earliest readers of the text said about it, or what Melville himself may have said, and you start working toward better and better guesses. You will surely find better and worse answers to the question, “What does the white whale represent?”, even if you don’t come across a definitive answer. You might have to revise one of your background assumptions that there should be a single thing being represented. But all of this is as much in accord with “the scientific method” as figuring out how photosynthesis works or what an enzyme does.

From what I read and hear, the push for more STEM education misses this central point, that intellectual discovery works pretty much the same way no matter what you are studying. Indeed, the privileging of STEM over other disciplines tends to perpetuate the view that science is reading and memorizing textbooks – for science differs from the humanities only in the peculiar differences in the domains: inclined planes vs. caste systems, planetary revolutions vs. printing presses, mixing stuff in beakers vs. studying original documents. Those differences in domain amount only to different piles of facts that have to be learned and kept in mind: once the data are in, the way of thinking about them and interpreting them works the same way: guess, derive other consequences, and look for them. The “scientific” method is just the method of thinking.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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One Response to On the mistaken view that there is something especially sciency about the so-called scientific method

  1. Mike says:

    You really should have gone the Carlos Castaneda route and proposed the Huenemannian way of knowledge.

    But seriously I’m so glad I focused so much attention on what constitutes knowledge in undergrad. Even in regard to a question like “should I add this button to my website?”, knowing how to determine the answer to that question and throw out people’s bad approaches to answering that type of question comes up all the time.


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