Scientific Method

The Myth of the Magical Scientific Method
by Dr. Terry HalwesThis information is from
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The procedure that gets taught as “The Scientific Method” is entirely misleading. Studying what scientists actually do is far more interesting.

Halucigenia confused
ON THIS PAGE: overview
what’s wrong with this picture
what keeps the myth alive?
so is there a scientific method?
teaching science with no method
can we improve on the formula?
loose ends

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Modern science is an amazing phenomenon, and people naturally wonder how it works. Oddly, science has never been thoroughly studied scientifically, so we have quite an array of different answers to this question, some of them accurate and some of them ridiculous. Unfortunately, the answer that became most popular was a guess made by some philosophers, which turned out to be worse than useless. Even more unfortunately, that guess is now commonly believed to be the simple truth about how science proceeds to develop new knowledge.Discussions of methodology in science are clouded by a dreadful confusion because the phrase “the scientific method” is used in two very different ways, one appropriate and one highly misleading. The appropriate one speaks in a very general way of science as a powerful process for improving understanding. People who use the phrase in this general way may be criticizing dogmatic clinging to beliefs and prejudices, or appreciating careful and systematic reasoning about empirical evidence. Although vague, this general use of the phrase can be more or less appropriate.On the other hand, the phrase is also commonly used in a much more specific sense — an entirely misleading sense — which implies that there is a unique standard method which is central to scientific progress. There is no such unique standard method — scientific progress requires many methods — but students in introductory science courses are taught that “The Scientific Method” is a straightforward procedure, involving testing hypotheses derived from theories in order to test those theories.The “hypothetico-deductive” schema taught to students was not developed as a method at all: It was intended a logical analysis of how scientific theories derive support from evidence, and it was developed in a process that intentionally excluded consideration of the process of discovery in science. Few people learn that this notion came by a tangled route from an unreliable source (philosophical speculation), or that actual research on how science proceeds is still in its infancy. The question of how science is so successful at improving understanding is hardly ever presented as a question at all.

The current situation is harmful in many ways: People in some immature scientific disciplines are actually trying to use this “method” as a guide to research practice; Others are required to pretend to have followed it when they report their results; and everyone is denied the benefit of useful, insightful analysis of how science works.

If you owned a swimming pool and had in your employ a swimming coach who wasn’t helping anyone — who was actually increasing the danger for some of your clients — you’d need to get someone who would actually do the job; and first you’d have to get the current coach down off the chair to make room for a replacement. Wouldn’t you?

Before (or soon after) reading this page, I invite you to read two sections of another page, Dispelling Some Common Myths About Science. The section titled No Special Method is Required argues that there’s a good reason why the effort to provide a cookbook for scientific research failed: Science is just not that simple. There is no unique “Scientific Method.” Scientists use many methods of investigation and reasoning, and most of them are also used in other fields of human endeavor. Then a section titled So Why Is Science So Powerful? explores the factors that contributed to the rise and advancement of modern science, and concludes that there is no need to postulate an arcane new mode of reasoning to explain how science continually improves our understanding of ourselves and of the natural world.In this article I’m going to focus on what’s wrong with the hypothetico- deductive account of scientific reasoning as an explanation of what scientists do, in the sections titled What’s Wrong With This Picture and What Keeps the Myth Alive?. I’ll recommend some alternative ways of thinking about the logic of research, in a section titled So Is There a Scientific Method?, and offer some hints about better ways to teach science in a section titled Teaching Science Without the Magic Method; Can we Improve on the Formula? offers an attempt at developing a replacement for the standard methodological dogma.


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Revised on April 27, 2000

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