The Myth of the Method

Let me begin with a brief anecdote. One thing that I’ve learned in my experience teaching philosophy (specifically, as a Teaching Assistant for a Critical Thinking class) is the alarming prevalence of dogmatic thinking about science. What I mean is that the attitudes of the young and well-educated towards the presentation of scientific knowledge and data, on average, doesn’t fare much better than those who uncritically reject good scientific evidence. Bad critical thinking about science is a nonpartisan issue. Indeed, while not strictly in decline, science literacy has been shown in some research to fall consistently short of what would be considered socially optimal. Improving metrics like the “Public Understanding of Science” (PUS) or “Civic Scientific Literacy” (CSL) is a very real concern for some policymakers, and philosophers are increasingly grappling with very similar issues.

I had some of these thoughts in mind while reading Emily Atkin’s excellent dissection of Ted Cruz’s wildly irresponsible and incorrect claims about the meaning of scientific evidence regarding anthropogenic climate change. Some of his errors stem from such incredible mistakes as systematically confusing the Arctic and the Antarctic. Clearly, there are lots of very good reasons to disagree with the claims that Cruz makes denying the reality of climate change. And this is not one of them:

cruzclaim

Photo Credit: Emily Aitkin, “Ted Cruz Challenged Science At His Climate Change Hearing. Science Won.” Think Progress, accessed 2015-12-12.

Talking about “the modern scientific method” as if it is a tidy operational procedure that makes modern science objective is bad critical thinking about science. It reflects the broader social deficit in our ability to think critically about science. Such claims about the scientific method don’t just come from frustrated philosophers who have penned over these problems for centuries. Modern sciences can’t be neatly grouped by their methodological standards. Botanists, evolutionary ecologists, particle physicists and planetary astronomers employ such widely different methodologies that an effort to call each one of them a ‘science’ based on shared methodological standards would be ad hoc. The ‘scientific method’ is a myth of modern science, quite popular up to about the mid-20th-century, but which has now been thoroughly debunked.

Not all myths are bad. The Ancient Greeks devised entire ethical and cosmological systems based on the epic myths of Homer. Myths are a kind of cultural glue that hold people together, through shared morality and reasoning practices. We are inclined to believe that the “scientific method” defines a good set of standards for reasoning for many reasons, not the least of which are the many great things that science does for us; and also, because ‘science’ itself is first and foremost supposed to be a kind of sound social reasoning. And in lots of cases, it is. However, when the power of the myth of sound social reasoning in a social institution so central to western democracies is allowed to become a substitute for our ability to think critically about knowledge that is so central to our daily lives as citizens (and scientific knowledge is, whether Ted Cruz likes it or not), we’re only helping to continue to polarize equally uncritical pro- and anti-science attitudes. No doubt it is still very useful and rewarding to analyze the many different scientific methods that are used, to explore their hidden biases and all the implications of the knowledge they provide. But the ‘scientific method’ as a cultural myth reveals a process by which uncritical pro-science attitudes come to be seen as a de facto epistemic virtue, while similarly uncritical anti-science attitudes are seen as an epistemic vice.

Improving civic scientific literacy is no easy task. In recent years, the most visible of efforts to do so has come in the surge of science popularizers – the Neil deGrasse Tysons, Bill Nyes and Lawrence Krausses of the world – who, for my part, seem mainly to disseminate scientific information in a heavily mediated, sensationalized way, which doesn’t exactly facilitate critical thinking so much as it perpetuates both pro- and (indirectly) anti-science dogmatic attitudes. I’m a bit disappointed in Aitkins’ Think Progress article, which links to the Wikipedia page on Scientific Method, and offers the brashest possible summary of the entire history, philosophy and sociology of scientific knowledge from the 17th-century to the modern day found therein, especially since the article does an otherwise great job of dismantling Cruz’s arguments.

This kind of argument makes it easier for climate change deniers to dig their heels in and cry dogmatism when presented along with scientific evidence. It makes it easier, because they’re right (though not necessarily less dogmatic). As such, I would conclude that it really should not feature alongside otherwise sound arguments refuting the claims of climate change deniers like Cruz, where it does more harm than help. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, most recently published in 2014, present a very high standard of evidence and scientific justification. Their claims are a great deal more modest than most deniers make them out to be, and they are still alarming. But defending these claims dogmatically will only serve to increase resistance to them. We should work hard to debunk myths that block our critical thinking about important subjects like scientific knowledge. And ultimately, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of all those who wish to use science as a way to bolster their arguments with empirical evidence, either for or against (rejecting empirical evidence is still a rhetorical device using empirical evidence, as the Cruz clique shows us). If we want to take political action on behalf of scientific evidence, we should have both the capacity and the patience to proceed undogmatically.

Though not directly sourced, readers interested in a critical perspective on the ‘scientific method’ would be interested to read, as a start, Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ (1975).

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Method”

  1. “Modern sciences can’t be neatly grouped by their methodological standards. Botanists, evolutionary ecologists, particle physicists and planetary astronomers employ such widely different methodologies that an effort to call each one of them a ‘science’ based on shared methodological standards would be ad hoc.”

    I would like to contest this. Can you give an example of what you mean by different methodologies?

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    1. Thanks for your question! It can be a bit difficult to sum up. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article I hyperlinked contains lots of valuable resources (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/). One example would be that a field like botany is still heavily empirical and observational, while evolutionary sciences can often heavily favour computer modeling and simulations. Even the realm of probabilistic and statistical methods, which almost all modern sciences employ in some form or another, varies widely. One way this manifests is scientists from different disciplines opting for different probabilistic methods, like Frequentism or Likelihoodism over Bayesianism (Elliot Sober writes extensively on these issues, a prominent philosopher of biology at Stanford).

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