Is There Really a Single Scientific Method?

September 7, 2010 at 2:54 pm 1 comment

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If you asked the average scientist today what exactly it is that they are doing, they would probably say something very similar to what Francis Bacon writes in his New Organon—even if they have never read it.

But I am inclined to think that the term “scientific method” is somewhat misleading. There was not a single method for doing natural philosophy (what we now call “science”) at the time of Bacon, and Bacon did not manage to establish a single method. Otherwise some of the most imminent scientists after Bacon would not have disagreed with his major premises. There have always been and continue to be a variety of scientific methods.

Even defining exactly the enterprise we call science—a word that arose only in the 19th century—is more difficult than one might think at first, let alone defining a scientific method common to all sciences. Is there really a common method between, let’s say, a scientist who classifies newly-found species, a scientist who infers the existence of unobserved “dark matter” in the universe based on the gravitational effects of visible matter, and a scientist who tries to determine whether or not or to what degree certain diseases might be prevented by drinking a glass of red wine a day?

It seems to me that the method and assumptions needed for each are wildly different. The first scientist uses a method more akin to that of a librarian (a method of classification), the second more akin to that of a theologian (inferring a completely invisible and unobserved entity based on its effects on the visible), and the third that of a mechanic (finding out how the complicated machine of the human body should best be treated and what might prevent different parts from breaking down).

And this does not yet take into account the possible cultural influences on science and the sometimes questionable framework in which scientific research is conducted (see cartoon above), which make the scientific method even more diverse.

So, is there really a single method, or should we rather speak of scientific methods, plural?

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