What is special about the scientific method?

17 May 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


When you talk of ideas these days people tend to ask if they had been scientifically proven? Some people reject reincarnation and karma saying these phenomena are not scientifically proven. The scientific method has been taken to such an extent in our minds that some people in Sri Lanka even talk of a ‘scientific cabinet’ now.

The question that should be asked then is “What is so special about science?” What is so special about anything that had been proven scientifically over another that had not been so? How do we separate science and non-science? Science is a word used for progressiveness from the early stages of western modernity and based on that a knowledge system which is called science has been raised over all the other knowledge systems. Is there anything special about science? This is not a new question. Philosophers have tried to answer this question for a long time.

There is a popular definition for science i.e. science is a knowledge which is tested according to the scientific method. This definition gives an answer to the question. Science is special because it is in accordance with the ‘scientific method.’ Then the next problem is what on earth this scientific method is? For this question the answers are diverse. Anyone who defines scientific method should establish the demarcation between science and non-science and explain why science is superior.
What is the scientific method? Secondary school education has given us a ready-made answer. It is hypothesis, experiment, observation and conclusions. This popular answer is misleading and incomplete. These are only steps of the so-called scientific method. A method is not a list of steps. A method says how to do rather than what to do. These buzzwords say nothing about how things go about in science.

Induction is to make many observations and generalize them to come up with a general statement. This Bacon’s idea is obviously incomplete.


Science is mainly about inventing new theories. A theory is a well fabricated story to explain some phenomena and observations. (This definition which is the most sophisticated one among many others is by Dr. Nalin de Silva.) ‘How’ does a scientist work when he is doing scientific research? This is the question to be answered by philosophers and scientists.

Sir Francais Bacon said scientific method is induction. Induction is to make many observations and generalize them to come up with a general statement. This Bacon’s idea is obviously incomplete. For instances, if we take the theory of gravitation we see things fall and the generalization is not gravitation, but a statement saying everything falls until it meets a barrier. Galileo introduced a term named hypothesis. That means what scientists do is not mere generalization, but to invent an ‘explanation’ (hypothesis) on observations and then test it.

Testing and verifying theory 
Then the problem is how do we test a theory? How can we verify a theory? As I have mentioned above, a theory is a story. How can we test a story? There is no direct way to test a story. What we can do is to consider the implications of the theory (story) and test them. Before the last century, philosophers of science and scientists believed that a theory can be proved by checking the implications. In non-science theories are not proved by checking implications.

Karl Popper, a rationalist philosopher, challenged these views. He showed that these views of the scientific method are completely illogical. One of his famous statements is that you cannot logically prove that “All swans are white” by observing thousands of white swans because there is a possibility that the next one is black. When you see a black swan the statement is falsified. Therefore we cannot prove anything by induction. What we can do is only refute a general statement. On the other hand, the statement that if P is Q doesn’t logically imply that if Q is correct then P is correct. For example, if a number gets divided by 4 it gets divided by 2 as well. But it can’t be in reverse. Though 6 is divided by 2 it is not divided by 4. Therefore although the implications of a theory are checked and found to be true, there is no guarantee that the theory is correct. However, we can do one thing. If an implication is found to be wrong we can say the theory is incorrect. We can refute the theory.

Therefore Karl Popper said we cannot prove anything by generalization or checking implications of a theory and therefore what can be done to verify theories in science is to refute them. Then people who expect science to be the path of finding truth had a problem saying that if you cannot prove truth in science then why use it. Popper said that science advances by creating lots of theories and rejecting the falsified ones. When false theories are excluded, true theories will remain. Therefore, the scientific method is falsification. If there is a ‘way to prove a hypothesis is false’ (not ‘proved false’) it is a scientific hypothesis. According to Popper, statements in astrology, psychoanalysis and Marxism provide no way to prove themselves to be false. That is to say they are un-testable, so these fields are non-science. This is Karl Popper’s critical rationalism.

Paradigm shift 
This idea was challenged by another philosopher Thomas Kuhn. When he studied the history of science for a speech, he understood that falsification is not the ultimate goal of the scientific method. He showed that testing an implication of a theory is not an isolated process. The implication is generated with the help of other existing theories. Other theories and auxiliary assumptions are used also in the experimentation process. Therefore if we find by experiment that an implication of a theory is false, we cannot directly say the theory is false. It should be the fault of other helping theories or auxiliary assumptions. Therefore there is no way to falsify a scientific theory too. This Kuhn’s identification gave life to a new concept: Paradigm. A paradigm is a structure which has a centre theory. In the era of normal science, scientists do not challenge the paradigm. New theories are checked using the theories in the paradigm. Nobody challenges the centre theory. However, there are eras of revolutionary science where the centre theory is challenged and refuted. Then the whole paradigm will collapse to give way to a new paradigm. Different paradigms approach the same problem in completely different ways. Therefore science is unable to prove whether something is true or false, but will only check if it is in accordance with the existing paradigm.

Kuhn also tried to formulate the demarcation between science and non-science. He said that a paradigm shift is only possible in science.

Then a philosopher named Paul Feyerabend showed by analyzing the Galileo affair and other incidents of science history, that there was no method special to science. He showed that science should not have special advantage over non-science. He said that we should be against the chauvinism of science.

Popper said we cannot prove anything by generalization or checking implications of a theory

Sri Lankan philosopher Dr. Nalin de Silva also made a contribution to this field. He invented the concept of Chinthanaya. Chinthanaya is the logical, epistemological, and deep philosophical fundamentals of a culture. Culture, Chinthanaya and knowledge of the culture is interrelated. Different cultures have different Chinthanayas and therefore there are different knowledge systems in different cultures. Hence there are different sciences in different cultures. Western science is the science of Greek Judaic Christian (GJC) Chinthanaya which is now dominating the world. No science reveals an absolute truth because there is nothing that could be taken as an objective reality. We all have our own different worlds. Knowledge is not an external truth. It is our construction. Theories are just stories we construct to explain our world. In that sense all knowledge is lies (Boru). Western science which consists of ‘abstract’ theories with concepts and phenomena that cannot be felt by the senses or imagined is a blatant lie (Pattapal Boru). Do not confuse these terms with their day today life meaning. Dr. Nalin de Silva further explains that other cultures should develop their own science against the oppressive dominance of western science and get rid of western imperialism completely. This is his Constructive Relativism.

Whatever these arguments are the most important thing to remember is that non-science is not just nonsense.

(Thamalu is a freelance writer and a second year undergraduate in Electronic and Telecommunications Engineering at the Moratuwa University. He could be contacted onthamalumaliththa@gmail.com)

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