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Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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MadArchitect

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Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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In the poll thread "What do you believe about science?", several people questioned the validity of the some of the options I presented because the focussed in part on our reactions to the findings of science. I want to raise some questions in this thread, but for anyone still looking for some answer as to why I provided the options that I did, here are the basics.One of the most frequent responses in that thread was that science was first and foremost a method of inquiry. I took that to mean that the findings of science at any given time were entirely secondary to that method, a status confirmed in part by the insistence on the relative impermanence of scientific "truth".I've read a great deal of the literature of science as a method, but I'm not sure I agree that the value of that method outstrips the impact of scientific findings. And more to the point, I think it unlikely that most of us really value the method more than the findings. I wouldn't want to psychoanalysize anyone's answers too closely, but it seems to me that the party-line about science's value as a method is a justification for science in response to very specialized critiques, and that it has, through certain popular writers, drifted into popular consciousness.First things first, though, let's talk about this idea that science is first and foremost a method. Several writers on science (all of them reknowned and practicing scientists themselves) have shed some light on other facets of science; their writings have been very influential in the way that I view science, and I think that the aspects they discuss are as central to the way that we use and assimilate science as anything within the "science as method" hypothesis. In particular, I want to bring two of those writers to everyone's attention.The first is Jacob Bronowski, whose book "Science and Human Values" was something of a landmark in the project to reconcile science with the humanities. In it, he discusses science as a community, and if we think about the way in which science works, I think we can see how that both differs from and reinforces the notion of science as a method. If science were only a method, then you or I could practice it independently of one another and not worry about whether or not our findings coincided. Whatever I came up would be of value to me, and to hell with you (and vice-versa). But, in fact, part of what we're talking about when we talk about science is a community of scientists who build off of one another's work. And the way that community takes shape and intercommunicates determines, in part, the way that science is done. The much-lauded "self-correcting mechanisms" of science are, in fact, almost entirely a function of science as a community. Who gets included in that community also has an impact, and it's of no little consequence that the direction of scientific research is guided in part by the fiscal interests of major corporations.All of those factors play into the communal nature of science as we know it, but the thing I want to emphasize most in Bronowski's thesis is the fact that we value science a great deal for the ways in which it allows us to structure our society. And that's something we do not in reference to science as a method -- which is, after all, something most of us give very little thought to over the course of a lifetime -- but in reference to its findings. When we hear that there may be a genetic disposition in males towards certain forms of violence, we may be inclined to shift our political and social positions in subtle or overt ways. Knowing that those findings were based on sound scientific method may make us more confident about the validity of those findings; conversely, knowing that science is constantly revising its conclusions may make us prone to take it with a grain of salt. But I think it's a bit naive to suppose that, in the moment of shifting our position, the method of science is as personally significant as the findings it produces.The second author I wanted to present is John Ziman, whose book "Reliable Knowledge" is one of the most comprehensive and fluff-free descriptions of actual scientific work that I've ever encountered. One of the ideas he forwards in that book is that the productive aim of normal scientific practice is to contribute to a "cognitive map" of the world. That is to say, that, when taken together, all of the findings supported by science at any one time present a picture of reality as we know it. That's of no little consequence. On the micro level, each one of us assembles whatever tidbits of information we've gleaned from popular science outlets into our own little cognitive map of the world, and we make reference to that map whenever we try to "navigate" one problem or another. So our understanding of evolution may end up informing our decisions in regard to how best to prepare our children for independent life; our understanding of the inner workings of nuclear physics may influence our decision to vote for one candidate or another; our understanding of nutrition influences our decision of where to eat lunch.To the end that modern science is also serves as a community, and provides the rudiments of a cognitive map, the emphasis on science as a method seems, to me, highly misleading. It distorts the picture of what effect science actually has on people by minimizing our awareness of science as anything but a way of determining which of several competing claims is the most viable. To the person who says that science is not about truth, I might agree on sheer epistemic and terminological grounds; but the crucial point, so far as I can see, is that we often behave as though a scientific finding were true. If science were primarily a method, then science would only be important to itself; by the same token, if knitting is also a method, but its importance to most people is that which it provides, ie. clothing.
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Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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Quote:If science were only a method, then you or I could practice it independently of one another and not worry about whether or not our findings coincided.Having multiple experiments to confirm or deny previous findings is "part" of the scientific method. Additionally, I think having various parties try to perform various experiments independently is a built in part of the method to ensure results are universal across the spectrum. "science" was strictly performed independantly, results could not be challenged or verified and many good scientists might accidentally come up with spurious results that were accepted as fact. Who gets included and who finances science is certainly going to effect what type of research is completed. Much of the computer and tech boom could be seen as a direct result of massive research money poured into war and defense funding early last century. But it is still science all the same. Certainly who pulls the strings will dictate what type of experiments are performed. See the current example of stem cell research in which much research was halted since educational research facilities rely on federal dollars.More to the main point of your post, I think there is a clean division between the actual scientific method of inquiry and how it is brought about (social and economic influences perhaps) and the moral implications. For example, Darwin gave us evolution but it was perverted and twisted into "Social Darwinism" by political and ideological points of view. I have a hard time connecting the scientific method which produced a theory with a political and/or moral ideology that attempted to pervert that theory. The Scientific Method allows for flaws in research but at least the Scientific Method prevents (in the long run) bias of individual humans who draw inappropriate conclusions from research.
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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SHIT!I had a reply ready to post and got a blue screen of death!Instead, I'll just link to a copy of a blog entry I posted a few months back:associatenotes.blogspot.c...s-not.htmlBasically, I feel that the scientific method is at the heart of Science, but that when used, the results are always contaminated by society in some way. Every scientific investigation is first and foremost a social action and it is important to keep that in mind. My Blog - with hidden tunes
MadArchitect

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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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riverc0il: Additionally, I think having various parties try to perform various experiments independently is a built in part of the method to ensure results are universal across the spectrum.That's one of the points I'm trying to make here. Independent testing of another person's findings is not a "built in" feature of scientific method. It's a function of the community of science, and that community itself is an apparatus that developed out of a set of concerns not entirely commensurate with science as a method. What any independent tester is doing when they test another researcher's findings is essentially the sort of thing the original researcher could have done him or herself. And the person testing those results isn't really interested in what the original researcher thinks of their checking his results -- they results of the second test are intended to benefit the scientific community.Who gets included and who finances science is certainly going to effect what type of research is completed. Much of the computer and tech boom could be seen as a direct result of massive research money poured into war and defense funding early last century. But it is still science all the same.Exactly. The fact that the direction and shape of science is determined by factors like who contributes the money for research, and on what conditions, is an indicator that we shouldn't talk about science as though it were just a method for finding out about the world. Every time we take that point of view, even implicitly, we distort what actually goes into the development of any particular theory or finding.More to the main point of your post, I think there is a clean division between the actual scientific method of inquiry and how it is brought about (social and economic influences perhaps) and the moral implications.How would that "clean division" arise? It seems risky to just suppose that there is such a division.For example, Darwin gave us evolution but it was perverted and twisted into "Social Darwinism" by political and ideological points of view.That presupposes that original Darwinism was in some sense pure, free of those influences. It wasn't. Darwin himself admitted to having been influenced in part by a reading of Malthuss' economic writings. If evolutionary theory lent itself so readily to Social Darwinism, it is in part because Darwinism already contained the terminology and rationale of economic theory. I don't see, in that particular example, any reason to suppose that any clean division is operable.At the same time, Darwin's theory issued a very strong challenge to contemporary notions as to what actually constituted scientific method. Darwin's argument wasn't experimental or deductive. It was arrived at, by and large, by analogy. We have since revised our notions as to what actually goes into the production of a scientific hypothesis, a point which Bronowski considers in detail.The Scientific Method allows for flaws in research but at least the Scientific Method prevents (in the long run) bias of individual humans who draw inappropriate conclusions from research.I'm not entirely sure that's so. It supposes, at least, that there is some external criteria by which we can judge any given application or conclusion drawn from science. There isn't. The only criteria is historical, and historical judgements are always made in reference to the transient present moment.
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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Mad, please define the term "science" as you use it. When I use it, I usually mean something like "that which we have learned from the scientific method." Edited by: medmo at: 9/1/07 12:56 am
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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I don't think much of anyone -- and I certainly wouldn't exclude myself -- uses the word science in an entirely consistent way. Which is part of the point. At its most general, science is attempt to understand the way the natural world works; in that sense, people have been practicing science long before anyone thought to create a "scientific method". More acutely, modern science is a fairly circumscribed activity, but I don't think its entirely separable from the community that defines itself around that practice, nor from the general public's reception of their findings. I know that's probably not as precise an answer as you would have liked, but I hope it illuminates things a little, at least.
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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Science, the way you describe it, is not just a method. I have a hard time knowing just where your description ends. I guess it includes the people, institutions, publications, media and public interpretations and more.So, now my question is, how do you define the scientific method, given the following? Quote:Independent testing of another person's findings is not a "built in" feature of scientific method. It's a function of the community of science, and that community itself is an apparatus that developed out of a set of concerns not entirely commensurate with science as a method.And, in the end, what is your point? That the scientific method is invalid? Is it simply that there is some error? Is it that people rely too heavily on some findings generated by the scientific community? Are you just trying to remind us of the fallibility of the senses and that (arguably) truth is unknowable?How would you improve or change things?
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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medmo: I have a hard time knowing just where your description ends.That's fine, I suppose, because the effects of science seem to permeate just about the whole of our society, so it's hard to say where science itself ends.So, now my question is, how do you define the scientific method, given the following?I'd say that scientific method is a good deal easier to nail down, since it's been the topic of a great deal of discussion since the Enlightenment. In the short form, I'd say that scientific method is the process of making hypotheses based on observation and reasoned analysis, followed by carefully applied experiments that test the plausibility of those hypotheses.It should be notable that scientific method, as I understand it, does not involve any assumptions about how those tested hypotheses are disseminated or applied, nor what their impact would be on any given segment of society.And, in the end, what is your point? That the scientific method is invalid?Yeah, it's probably pretty difficult to see my point if you're new here, or if you haven't been exposed to a lot of the literature that we've read as a group. There have been didactic attempts to situate science in a more flattering light. Some of those attempts have been defensive -- as whenever a critic of scientific progress raises the spectres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- while others seem to have been part of an offensive to defame other aspects of culture -- particularly religion.One of the fall back positions for those who don't want to admit any criticism of science has been that science is only a method of arriving at reliable knowledge of the world. Which is where this thread picks up the question. Because it seems to me that, by far, the more influential aspects of science have little to with method and a great deal to do with how we apply the findings of science and the impact they have on the way laymen think and live.How would you improve or change things?Well, for one thing, I'd look for ways to increase the public's outlets for discussing and considering science. Most people get their scientific knowledge from 10 second sound bytes on CNN. The scientific community laments the public's misunderstanding of science, but realisitically, I think it just as often serves their interests to not have a general public that is capable of cogently questioning their aims, motives and methods.For another, I'd like to find some way to change the root assumptions that drive the way our society deals with and applies findings that it takes to be reliably true. There's too often a tendency to seek immediate and broad application of a new technology without really considering the impact it will likely have. Just as a for instance, I only yesterday finished Rachel Carson's classic book "Silent Spring", which details the way in which chemical pesticide spraying has gravely damaged both human and ecological health. Granted, pesticide sprayers in the 1950s didn't have access to the wealth of information that we have now (or even that available to Carson in the late 60s), but the fact that they were spraying substances designed to kill should have made them a hell of a lot more circumspect than they were. Carson's book obviously made a dent, but attitudes don't seem to have shifted all that fundamentally -- a recent Senate motion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth was recently blocked by a senator who claimed that Carson was unworthy of the honor because her book had seriously impeded the pesticide industry! That may be true, of course, but you have to weigh it against the loss of life and the long term ecological and physical harm those pesticides were causing.And thirdly, I'd like to see people stop using science as a polemical tool for attacking the beliefs and values of others. I'd like to see the opposite as well -- religion no longer being used to castigate an ideological enemy -- but that's hardly a theme that needs more visibility on BookTalk, so I don't really see much reason to start yet another thread on that subject.
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Quote:Well, for one thing, I'd look for ways to increase the public's outlets for discussing and considering science. Most people get their scientific knowledge from 10 second sound bytes on CNN. Interesting observation, and I think it's mostly true. Why do you suppose that's all the exposure they get? Lack of demand or lack of supply? I think it's mostly the former.Quote:The scientific community laments the public's misunderstanding of science, but realisitically, I think it just as often serves their interests to not have a general public that is capable of cogently questioning their aims, motives and methods. Broad strokes, but I guess that's the nature of this conversation. I disagree in general, but there are exceptions. When I think of scientific research, I think of the medical journals. If you were to look through them, you'd see work done by people. And each one of those people has his/her own faults, wants, desires, fears, etc that may affect the objectivity of the findings. And each study design and statistical analysis may include error. But the goal of their research is usually to produce reliable, valid findings. Realistically, this is so because careers may depend on it. But it's also because the people who do research are usually mainly interested in finding answers.As for the exceptions, it's easy to name the salient examples of recent past. I guess one thinks of the recent Vioxx problems. I'll definitely agree that some people apparently let their avarice get the better of them. But I still think it's the exception.But I think the community I'm discussing above is more narrow than the one you are discussing. Once we start getting into how the talking head on CNN reinterprets what Sanjay Gupta said in a 2-minute interview about the etiology of heart failure, I can't say much one way or the other about motives or methods.Quote:For another, I'd like to find some way to change the root assumptions that drive the way our society deals with and applies findings that it takes to be reliably true. There's too often a tendency to seek immediate and broad application of a new technology without really considering the impact it will likely have. Yes, I agree there's a difficult balance between risk and benefit. And there are examples of conflicts of interest when potential commercial benefits cloud that analysis.Quote: Just as a for instance, I only yesterday finished Rachel Carson's classic book "Silent Spring", which details the way in which chemical pesticide spraying has gravely damaged both human and ecological health. Granted, pesticide sprayers in the 1950s didn't have access to the wealth of information that we have now (or even that available to Carson in the late 60s), but the fact that they were spraying substances designed to kill should have made them a hell of a lot more circumspect than they were. Carson's book obviously made a dent, but attitudes don't seem to have shifted all that fundamentally I'm going to be a little cute -- I've never read the book, but I presume the details of how pesticide spraying damaged human health was the result of scientific research? If there is "too often a tendency to seek immediate and broad application of a new technology," how cautious should we be in their application? What about in the application of Carson's findings? I suppose your making the general statement that we should be more cautious in instituting NEW technologies, and more quickly back off from them at the first sign of harm. That's a fine position, and in general, I agree with you. But the general application may be rather difficult. For example, when that position leads one to make decisions that withhold potential life saving technologies, it may not feel as comfortable. (Sorry to always bring it back to medical world, but that's what I'm familiar with). Or maybe technologies that are designed to reduce greenhouse gases, such as "scrubbers" in industrial exhaust. How long do we wait before instituting that technology?Quote: -- a recent Senate motion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth was recently blocked by a senator who claimed that Carson was unworthy of the honor because her book had seriously impeded the pesticide industry!Agreed, some people are nuts.
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Re: Is science only (or even mostly) a method?

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"Independent testing of another person's findings is not a "built in" feature of scientific method. "That doesn't sound correct - the scientific method is not just completing an experiment, reaching a conclusion, then Bob's your uncle, we're done. Replication of experiments is required in order to find errors or bias in interpretation of results. Peer review is standard procedure at every level. There are even "meta reviews" where hundreds of studies of a certain phenomenon are reviewed, data collection methods graded, quality of analytical techniques assessed, and so on - then overall conclusions on the state of research in that area are published. Publishing the results of an experiment or study is only the beginning of the "method".
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