The Scientific Method” Ain’t Necessarily So

One of the biggest methodological problems of run-of-the-mill modern science is that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the philosophy of science. When it does, it tends to fasten onto a single philosopher such as Karl Popper. And the second biggest problem with run-of-the-mill (as opposed to innovative and ground-breaking) modern science is that it is ignorant of any of the enormous methodological, philosophy-relevant changes that have taken place in physics, astronomy, chemistry, evolutionary biology, and genetics since about 1970. Yes, I am saying it is 45 years out of date. But sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

It was way back in 1980 that Stephen Jay Gould, an extremely well-respected vertebrate paleontologist, explained that he did not use the Scientific Method. Instead, he reconstructed the “unique and complex” history of life on earth in his search for understanding about past life (1), which is to say he told stories — responsible stories told with care, but stories. Many of Gould’s numerous and best-selling books took issue with ideas about falsifiable and testable “Scientific Method” prevalent in modernist science and the logical positivistic philosophy that informs “scientism” (as it is called). Mind you: Gould was not an inconsequential or ignorant scientist. He was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, where he taught evolutionary theory. Considered one of the most important evolutionary theorists of the last half of the 20th century, Gould was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 1999 to 2001. In other words, he did not speak or write about scientific method lightly or off-handedly, and he was being very much to the point when he said he did not use the Scientific Method. In many of his writings, he made it very clear that the processes we refer to by that name, of crafting a testable hypothesis for example, are not only philosophically unsound but unable to produce meaningful research in new fields of exploration.

One of the most salient examples of research that does not use the so-called “Scientific Method” is that of theoretical physics, which is highly mathematical and rigorous but does not follow any of the procedures commonly taught to students in introductory science classes. Despite the fact that you can find websites that purport to retrofit Einstein’s work to the Scientific Method, neither theoretical physicists nor philosophers of science see it that way — and neither, most of the time, did Einstein himself.

One of the most powerful sources about Einstein’s work and processes is the extremely thorough and highly academic biography by Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Citing numerous other scholars and biographers as well as Einstein’s own writings, Isaacson argues that Einstein did not follow the Scientific Method in the ways that most people define or conceptualize those processes. Here is just a selection of quotes and their sources about this matter, to drive home the serious nature of the methodological issue in question:

“. . . therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein’s brilliance and the lessons of his life. As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity . . . As he once declared, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.'” (7; quote is from Viereck, see below) See also these references: Tomas Friedman, “Learning to Keep Learning” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2006. George Viereck Sylvester. 1930. Glimpses of the Great. New York: Macauley. (Einstein profile first published as ‘What Life Means to Einstein” in Saturday Evening Post, Oct. 26, 1929.)

“It is important to foster individuality, for only the individual can produce new ideas.” (7; from Einstein message for Ben Scheman Dinner, March 1952, AEA 28-931; reference 8 from Isaacson) “[Einstein] generally preferred to think in pictures, most notably his famous thought experiments, such as imagining watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravity while inside a falling elevator. ‘I very rarely think in words at all,’ he later told a psychologist. ‘A thought came, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.'” (9) ref 4, Ch. 2, “Childhood”: Vallentin, 17; Einstein to psychologist Max. Wertheimer in Wertheimer, 1959, Productive Thinking, NY Harper: 214. Antonina Vallentin. 1954. The Drama of Albert Einstein. NY Doubleday.

“Weber’s irritation was yet another example of how Einstein’s scientific as well as his personal life was affected by the traits deeply bred into his Swabian soul: his casual willingness to question authority, his sassy attitude in the face of regimentation, and his lack of reverence for received wisdom.” (Weber was a physics professor at Zurich Polytechnic; Einstein himself spoke of the traits of his “Swabian soul” in this manner.) page 34.

From Footnote 26: “Professor Robert Rynasiewicz of Johns Hopkins is among those who emphasize Einstein’s reliance on inductive methods. Even though Einstein in his later career wrote often that he relied more on deduction than on induction, Rynasiewicz calls this ‘highly contentious.’ He argues instead, ‘My view of the annus mirabilis is that it is a triumph of what can be secured inductively in the way of fixed points from which to carry on despite the lack of fundamental theory.'” Pers. comm. email to the author, July 2006. FN 27: Miller, Arthur I. 1984. Imagery in Scientific Thought. Boston: Birkhäuser. p. 117. Also Sonnert, Gerhard. 2005. Einstein and Culture. Amherst NY: Humanity Books, page 289

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I was a member for many years of interdisciplinary research groups at UC Berkeley that included a number of quantum physicists and chemists, among whom were several Nobel Prize laureates. I guarantee you they knew their philosophy of science. And they literally laughed at the idea that the Scientific Method is the only way research is carried out.

Book upon book exist in the field of philosophy of science, documenting the actual processes used by extraordinary as well as run-of-the-mill scientists in all kinds of research endeavors, most of them concluding that the so-called “Scientific Method” is but a subset of deductive reasoning, with many extraneous trappings, and that deductive reasoning itself is but one of a number of methods used to carry out real and innovative scientific research.

In addition to this, a number of books in the field of feminist science have uncovered methodologies used by researchers such as geneticist Barbara McClintock, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1983. The basis of her work did not lie in crafting testable or falsifiable hypotheses and pursuing them in the rigid manner prescribed by those who believe the Scientific Method not only describes how scientific research is done, but how it should be done.

Indigenous research methods exist within this rich palette of methods and fields. They offer so much value to the research community that Indigenous elders and educators meets regularly with research scientists in the fields of theoretical physics and resilience ecology, and it is not so they can be educated in the Scientific Method.

Yes, crafting a hypothesis can be useful. Yes, it can be meaningful to make that hypothesis testable, or even falsifiable. I have taught the method to both undergraduate and graduate students. But it is absolutely NOT the only way scientific research is really done.

So when someone from the dominant scientific community tells me that Indigenous research graduate students “must” use the Scientific Method in their work for it to be valid science – that they must frame their research as a problem statement, hypothesis, and research question — or that, in some cases, they even have to posit a theory (a level of ideation that has no business in an early research career, which is something a scientist advisor ought to know), I have to cry not only “foul” but “bad science!” It’s time we, as Indigenous scholars, started learning some sound philosophy of science. I think the dominant culture counts on us not knowing it. For certain, without it we cannot defend ourselves. We can only – and I think this may be the better course of action – simply go about our business and ignore them.

(1) Stephen Jay Gould. 1980. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. p. 18-27

(2) Walter Isaacson. 2008. Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster.