Friday, 9 September 2016

The Scientific Method

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Scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary says that scientific method is: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

The scientific method is often misunderstood and frequently misrepresented sometimes by scientists who apply/belie their craft. Actually the 'Scientific Method' is fairly simple in conception. It is this 'simplicity' which understates its power in uncovering new knowledge. It is so simple that men of intellectual quality in times past considered the 'technique' too simple to provide any profound insight into the natural world. The ancient Greeks, a few notable exceptions aside, did not consider scientific induction worthy of contemplation. All useful knowledge, or so they thought, could be obtained by thinking very hard about a subject or by the dialectic. Now it is true that certain areas of knowledge are amenable to these techniques: logic and ethical considerations do well under these circumstances. But a great swathe of knowledge is denied if we rely on deductive reasoning alone.

The rise of the scientific method and thus science from the 17th century onward is responsible for the explosion in our technological advancement. Fascinatingly, Newton thought and wrote copiously about theology and alchemy but he is only remembered for his scientific and mathematical achievements; I wonder why? As an interlude, I will venture to say that all theology and the notion of faith is no way to obtain insight or knowledge about anything. While theology and religion(s) may be valid topics for the philosopher and psychologist, they play no part in science and no part in the revelation of knowledge by induction.

All science begins by an observation about the world in which we inhabit. The observer then posits an explanation, or hypothesis. This is the stage where the Ancient Greek philosopher would stop. He may have elaborated on his initial musings but he rarely tested it.

The true scientist challenges a hypothesis by experimentation. A single variable is changed and the chase begins anew. Is the subsequent result in accord with the hypothesis? If not the original hypothesis must be discarded in its entirety and a new hypothesis proposed or the original hypothesis is implored to undergo modification to fit impudent experimental results. In real science the initial experiment is repeated many times. New experiments are devised and the hypothesis is examined thoroughly and from many angles. If the hypothesis stands up to experimental rigor it may advance to the next stage and become a theory- a model for understanding a particular process. It may even enter the canon of existing knowledge (shit happens). But good science should not rest on its laurels. New and often ingenious, nay devious, experiments should be devised and so the work continues. A good theory should try and explain a phenomenon remarkably well. It does not have to be perfect. Any established explanation should be subject to change given new evidence. As an example, I'll consider Newton's laws of motions (good man, that Newton).

Actually, I've used this example elsewhere, but as it is such a good one I reckon its worth reiterating. When Newton described his theories in the mid 17th century they explained the natural world exceedingly well. All observations, of the time, pertaining to bodily motion conformed to Newton's will. Surely this was the last word on the matter? Twas destined that Newton's laws should be engrained into scientific certainly for an eternity (steady Flaxen, you are starting to wax lyrical).

Scientific theories should always be taken as fluid; open to change /challenge or frank abandonment. And indeed, by the early 20th century it became clear that the 'Newtonian Model' did not explain all aspects of stellar motion and small discrepancies had become apparent. However, so great was Newton's reputation that few researchers were willing to dispute Newtonian mechanics and most very happy to embrace observational error as a resolution to the problem. Furthermore, while Newtonian mechanics was able to describe the force of gravity, Newton freely admitted that he had no idea what that 'force' might entail.

Then along came Einstein. Einstein had the intellectual audacity to suggest that the 'Newtonian System' was not the last word. Not only did his theories of relativity explain the world better than the established system but he even had a mechanism which explained gravities' elusive force at a distance, at least to some folk's satisfaction. According to Einstein, gravity is a mere artefact of mass warping space-time- go figure. Relativity never appeals to common sense, intuition or even logic. And all this without a single practical experiment. Einstein got by with 'thought experiments'. Only a bona fide genius should subscribe to this methodology. Please don't try this at home.
In conclusion, science methodology not only produces the ever lasting light bulb it also gives us access to all knowledge that ain't math. If you think to the contrary I would challenge you to consider anew or at least challenge the author to comment, anew. To be honest I relish well thought out and intelligent debate. Arse.


  1. Einstein can't be classed as witless
    He claimed atoms were the littlest
    When he did the bit of splttliness
    It frightened every bugger shirtless

    Thee ain't been some clever bastards...

  2. The late, great Ian Drury. Perhaps he is staggering around on the great white cloud in the sky, somewhere?

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