The scientific method – what about the philosophical method?

I enjoy the In Our Time Podcasts with Melvyn Bragg. The subjects are very wide-ranging and always informative.

His last one was on The Scientific Method. It basically discusses the evolution of scientific methods from a philosophical viewpoint. The participants were:

  • Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge;
  • John Worrall, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the LSE and
  • Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at University College London.

Personally, I would have welcomed inclusion of a practising scientist to bring some practical insight into the discussion. Still, I did find the historical survey of philosophers ideas on the scientific method interesting. But it got me thinking – these philosophers seem so concerned about the scientific method – and yet no one talks about the philosophical method!

What is the philosophical method?

What methods do philosophers use? And how have these evolved over time? And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods? Is this because philosophers are happier critiquing other areas and avoid their own?

For example. While I thought this discussion did treat the subject fairly the descriptions of scientific method offered by various philosophers over the years do strike me as “just so” stories. I get the feeling that the philosophers concerned are presenting their pet model. Evidence quoted is usually anecdotal, more for example rather than support. The Copernican revolution, or the evolution of Einsteinian mechanics out of Newtonian mechanics are used to illustrate a thesis, rather than testing the hypothesis by analysing the data from the history of a large number of scientific theories.

Now, I could never have got any of my research results accepted for publication with only anecdotal and illustrative evidence. Good data, statistically analysed to show significance for claims, was always expected. The standards for philosophical theories seems to be a lot lower. How many philosophers really take data collection and analysis seriously?

The other thing that strikes me about these “just so” stories are that they always seem to ignore the human factor. Scientific method is often presented as an algorithm or flow chart – scientists behave this way and they produce hypotheses which are checked experimentally, etc.

But scientists are humans. They are just as prone to emotions as any other people. And in fact current scientific understanding of decision-making indicates that emotions are very much involved in our seemingly rational considerations. Where else do scientists get the passion for the work they do? Creativity does not come from mechanical application of methods. And scientists are also prone to prejudice, fantasy,  attachment to preconceived ideas, and confirmation bias as anyone else. The possible consequences of this need to be recognised and scientific methodology must compensate for it.

That’s why I like Richard Feynman‘s description of scientific method as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” This is a better description of the human reality of scientific research than any descriptive, or prescriptive, flow diagram of “scientific method.”

Why does this matter?

Well, for two reasons:

1: How often does one read material from opponents of science using pop versions of scientific method and philosophy of science to justify their rejection of, or denial of, scientific knowledge?  Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science. We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement! They are equating acceptance of the current scientific understanding as equivalent to belief in a geocentric universe! (See “Galileo Movement” Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia).

2: Post-modernist and ideological motivated concepts of the philosophy of science do get circulated in academic circles.  In the past I have heard some of these descriptions presented by local science managers and suspect that these ideas can influence management and human resources teachings via philosophy of science and sociology of science inputs. The danger is that this influence decisions on science funding and investment.

Maybe some of the cock-ups we have seen in science management and New Zealand over the years could be traced back to ideology and misunderstanding about the nature of scientific research picked up by managers during their training. Maybe not all these mistakes were due to incompetence.

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14 responses to “The scientific method – what about the philosophical method?

  1. Although philosophy includes formal deductive logic, the “philosophical method” that you seem so suspicious of is not a formal process, it is a rich history of tossing ideas about and robustly questioning anything and everything. This questioning process may seem less important in fields where there is plenty of quantitative empirical data, but in other sciences such as sociology or economics or politics or psychology, philosophical arguments carry a lot of weight. People and societies are bloody complicated and less amenable to measurement and modelling than natural processes.


  2. Ropata – I am not suspicious of philosophical method – just pointing out that while philosophers will pontificate (often incorrectly) about scientific method no one seems to pay attention to the philosophical method bring used. Well, Marx did – and I think his Feurbach theses on this were insightful. But hardly anyone else.

    I agree with you on the difficulty of getting objective data in the social sciences. We have to approach each situation at the level which is possible and shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Unfortunately I feel sometimes that this is accompanied by permissive subjectivism rather than honest acknowledgement of limitations.

    Regarding philosophy of science I do think there is scope for more objectivity and wonder about the new field of experimental philosophy. This seems to be paying off in areas of neuroscience and human cognition. I suspect though it is looked down on by many philosophers who don’t wish to dirty their hands.

    Regarding scientific method I do think there is room for a more data intensive study. Really, anecdotal illustrations are just not adequate. And they do give free reign to ideology so that we get some quite shocking philosophers and sociologists of science (Steve Fuller for example).


  3. There is much nonsense talked of scientific method.

    Philosophers and teachers are perhaps the main offenders.
    Some scientists, usually those few who tend to make science a surrogate religion, invent obfuscations.

    I agree with your opinion, Ken, that Feynman’s typically down-to-earth description is very apt.

    Science is essentially systematic observation.

    Scientific method is simply the attempt to, wherever possible, enhance the significance of observations by the exclusion of confounding variables.

    We call this controlled experiment.


  4. Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science.

    We don’t know absolutely everything therefore we know nothing.

    It works for many diverse groups.
    Here’s just one famous example:

    Do we know absolutely everything about lung cancer? No.
    Do we know absolutely everything about tobacco? No.
    Therefore, we must do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

    We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement!

    Every crackpot wants to shamelessly drape themselves in the mantle of Galileo. It’s as sort of reflex action for scumbags of all shapes and sizes.

    ‘In “reality”, taking up the mantle of Galileo requires not just that you are scorned by the establishment but also that you are correct. There is no necessary link between being perceived as wrong and actually being correct; usually if people perceive you to be wrong, you are wrong. However, the selective reporting of cases where people who were persecuted or ostracized for beliefs and ideas that later turned out to be valid has instilled a confidence in woo promoters and pseudoscientists that is difficult to shake. They really do forget the part where they have to prove themselves right in order to be like Galileo.’


  5. HappyEvilSlosh

    “And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods?”

    Maybe because you haven’t looked:


  6. Notwithstanding the reference to “Metaphilosophy”, which of course, is itself part of philosophy and thus self-referential, the proper reply to:

    “And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods?”

    Is that, in philosophy, which has no overall axiomatic basis, anything goes!

    Even the old favorite pronouncement of Descartes has no logical validity.

    You can, of course define a system of axioms to use in a subset of philosophy. By far the most useful system of this kind is that subset called science.

    But even in a case such as this the selection of axioms in relation to philosophy per se is arbitrary.

    Twiddling around with philosophy might be, like stamp collecting, an entertaining pastime but for the generation and manipulation of “real world” (Yeah, I know…) artifacts, only “Natural Philosophy”, science, is uniquely successful. .


  7. “And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods?”

    From Socrates onwards, the development and critique of philosophical methods has been *the* primary concern of philosophy.


  8. But it doesn’t appear to have concerned anyone else. Nothing seems to get through to the more accessible literature in the way that discussion of, and polemics on, the scientific method have. There does not seem to be any equivalent of the Dover case where evidence had to be presented on scientific method and definitions given.


  9. Scientists and the wider public routinely discuss post-structuralist and so-called postmodern philosophy, its social implications, as well as its implications for the practice of science. To name one. Or Marxism, to name another.

    If you’re after legal cases, they would be too numerous to mention, but the ones involving Holocaust denial seem to have been particularly significant to me, and have involved a deep questioning of different philosophical methods, both in the broad arena of public opinion and in works of scholarship such as Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust and Jean-François Lyotard’s The Differend.


  10. Well, Giovanni – I haven’t seen this regular “scientists and wider public discussion.” How about providing some links?


  11. Philosophy of science doesn’t get inordinate criticism that I aware (setting aside Fox News etc). Politics, ethics & religion are publicly dissected far more.
    Having said that, Wired magazine thinks Science is failing us!


  12. “Well, Giovanni – I haven’t seen this regular “scientists and wider public discussion.” How about providing some links?”

    When I was a lad in the old country, the finer point of Hegel, Marx and Gramsci were a common topic for discussion on the factory floor. Current debates in New Zealand may not be quite so sophisticated, but what goes under the pejorative term of “relativism” (and is a strawman version of postmodern philosophy) is brought up often enough, you’ll pardon me for not collecting the links (god I hate how hyperlinks are now what counts as evidence in internet discussions). The Sokal querelle certainly got a lot of play in the media in its day. And so on and so forth. But the most obvious relevant current debate is the one concerning the funding of humanities vs. science at university and research level, and it ultimately hinges on the perceived social and economic value of the philosophical method, whose stocks are at an all-time low.


  13. Ropata – this post was referring to a specific episode of In our Times podcast. While I have no real bitch with the historical description given I do find it interesting that we get programmes like this and really nothing on “the philosophical method.” Perhaps no-one is interested?

    But I think that is short-sighted because whereas science has a powerful factor keeping it honest (its interaction with reality) philosophy does not. Therefore we have different “schools” of philosophy – and often those commenting on real world issues are not up front about their world view. So clear descriptions of philosophical methods and the difference between the different schools would be valuable.

    As someone who has had a lot of experience with the practice of science I find many of the descriptions of scientific method given by philosophers are just wrong. And not just from philosophers of religion like Plantinga and Craig. I also find the “philosophical/methodological materialism” argument of people like Forrest unrealistic (even opportunistic). As I say these tend to be “just so” stories that the propounder is trying to fit reality into.

    I still think there is room for an experimental philosopher to make a more data intensive study of just how scientific research actually occurs. But my impression is that experimental philosophers’ are looked down on by other philosophers because they get their hands dirty.


  14. I find many of the descriptions of scientific method given by philosophers are just wrong. And not just from philosophers of religion like Plantinga and Craig.

    That’s not all they get wrong.
    They also seem to have this serious mental block with atheism.
    It’s a really simple thing to understand. It’s really simple to describe.
    There is no required reading necessary nor “deep” concepts that one must grasp.
    Yet there is this predictable-as-clockwork compulsion to create strawmen whenever they try to talk about atheism.


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