Intelligent Design

Discover Magazine: The Scientific Method is a Myth

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It’s probably best to get the bad news out of the way first. The so-called scientific method is a myth. That is not to say that scientists don’t do things that can be described and are unique to their fields of study. But to squeeze a diverse set of practices that span cultural anthropology, paleobotany, and theoretical physics into a handful of steps is an inevitable distortion and, to be blunt, displays a serious poverty of imagination. Easy to grasp, pocket-guide versions of the scientific method usually reduce to critical thinking, checking facts, or letting “nature speak for itself,” none of which is really all that uniquely scientific. If typical formulations were accurate, the only location true science would be taking place in would be grade-school classrooms.

and then there is this:

All of this paralleled a shift in popular notions of science from general systematized knowledge during the early 1800s to a special and unique sort of information by the early 1900s. These notions eclipsed habits of talk about the scientific method that opened the door to attestations of the authority of science in contrast with other human activities.  Such labor is the essence of what Thomas Gieryn (b. 1950) has called “boundary-work”— that is, exploiting variations and even apparent contradictions in potential definitions of science to enhance one’s own access to social and material resources while denying such benefits to others.

Surely the end is near when even Discover admits that all of the boundary talk is merely so much scratching and clawing for money and prestige.

8 Replies to “Discover Magazine: The Scientific Method is a Myth

  1. 1
    Virgil Cain says:

    Science is a process:

    There is no such thing as “THE Scientific Method.”
    If you go to science fairs or read scientific journals, you may get the impression that science is nothing more than “question-hypothesis-procedure-data-conclusions.”

    But this is seldom the way scientists actually do their work. Most scientific thinking, whether done while jogging, in the shower, in a lab, or while excavating a fossil, involves continuous observations, questions, multiple hypotheses, and more observations. It seldom “concludes” and never “proves.”

  2. 2
    bornagain says:


    Programming of Life 2: EARTH – video

    as to the scientific method, perhaps ‘asking the right questions’ is the most important aspect of an investigation? And perhaps refusing to even entertain a question because of a personal philosophical bias against the question even being asked is the most hindering thing to an investigation?

    Children Act Like Scientists – October 1, 2012
    Excerpt: New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways.

    Geometric Principles Appear Universal in Our Minds – May 2011
    Excerpt: Villagers belonging to an Amazonian group called the Mundurucú intuitively grasp abstract geometric principles despite having no formal math education,,, Mundurucú adults and 7- to 13-year-olds demonstrate as firm an understanding of the properties of points, lines and surfaces as adults and school-age children in the United States and France,,,

    “Geometry is unique and eternal, a reflection from the mind of God. That mankind shares in it is because man is an image of God.”
    – Johannes Kepler

    Design Thinking Is Hardwired in the Human Brain. How Come? – October 17, 2012
    Excerpt: “Even Professional Scientists Are Compelled to See Purpose in Nature, Psychologists Find.” The article describes a test by Boston University’s psychology department, in which researchers found that “despite years of scientific training, even professional chemists, geologists, and physicists from major universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale cannot escape a deep-seated belief that natural phenomena exist for a purpose” ,,,
    Most interesting, though, are the questions begged by this research. One is whether it is even possible to purge teleology from explanation.

    “Shutting down part of the brain that’s responsible for problem solving” causes atheism.

    Shutting down part of brain changes views on God, immigrants: study – October 14, 2015
    Excerpt: Temporarily shutting down part of the brain that’s responsible for problem solving can suppress your religious views and prejudices toward immigrants, a new study has found.
    Researchers out of the University of York, in England, and the University of California, Los Angeles, used magnetic energy to safely and temporarily shut down specific regions of the brain of some study participants.
    When the posterior medial frontal cortex — a part of the brain located near the surface and roughly a few inches up from the forehead — was shut down, participants reported a decrease in their religious convictions and were more positive toward new immigrants critical of their country.

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    AMEN. Even the bad guys are suggesting the scientific method is a myth.
    There is no such thing as science.
    its just people figuring things out.
    The best they can say, and they can’t, is that science is a higher standard of investigation that can demand higher confidence in its conclusions.
    Conclusions are made or drugs would not be sanctioned for common use.
    Its just about being very careful about investigation into aspects of the natural world.
    The hunch or idea is unrelated to investigation. Yet even it is a part of information already acquired.

    All this means that evolution and company are just conclusions.
    They are not right because they are sciency!!
    They are conclusions of men and in this case poorly done relative to complicated biology.
    Biology is harder then mere physics which is simple in making conclusions.
    Physics is wrongly seen as a higher prong in understanding nature.
    Creationism(s) rightly does as much, or no, science as evolution.
    Its plain dumb wrongo to say its a different standard of investigation then used by its opponents.
    ID and YEC are as sciency as anything. Anything done carefully and thoughtfully.

    Evolution does not have biological scientific evidence. So it fails completely.
    It misunderstands what science, at best, is.
    Its being careful in the subject of attention.
    Biology is not fossils or comparative anatomy and genetics.
    Biology is about living processes and must be studied while working.
    Or very soon after.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:


    I liked this clip:

    Scratch the surface of the scientific method and the messiness spills out. Even simplistic versions vary from three steps to eleven. Some start with hypothesis, others with observation. Some include imagination. Others confine themselves to facts. Question a simple linear recipe and the real fun begins. A website called Understanding Science offers an “interactive representation” of the scientific method that at first looks familiar. It includes circles labeled “Exploration and Discovery” and “Testing Ideas.” But there are others named “Benefits and Outcomes” and “Community Analysis and Feedback,” both rare birds in the world of the scientific method. To make matters worse, arrows point every which way. Mouse over each circle and you find another flowchart with multiple categories and a tangle of additional arrows.

    It’s also telling where invocations of the scientific method usually appear. A broadly conceived method receives virtually no attention in scientific papers or specialized postsecondary scientific training. The more “internal” a discussion — that is, the more insulated from nonscientists —the more likely it is to involve procedures, protocols, or techniques of interest to close colleagues.

    Meanwhile, the notion of a heavily abstracted scientific method has pulled public discussion of science into its orbit, like a rhetorical black hole. Educators, scientists, advertisers, popularizers, and journalists have all appealed to it. Its invocation has become routine in debates about topics that draw lay attention, from global warming to intelligent design. Standard formulations of the scientific method are important only insofar as nonscientists believe in them.

    Then, this:

    Now for the good news. The scientific method is nothing but a piece of rhetoric. Granted, that may not appear to be good news at first, but it actually is. The scientific method as rhetoric is far more complex, interesting, and revealing than it is as a direct reflection of the ways scientists work. Rhetoric is not just words; rather, “just” words are powerful tools to help shape perception, manage the flow of resources and authority, and make certain kinds of actions or beliefs possible or impossible . . . . Scientific method is a keyword (or phrase) that has helped generations of people make sense of what science was, even if there was no clear agreement about its precise meaning— especially if there was no clear agreement about its precise meaning. The term could roll off the tongue and be met by heads nodding in knowing assent, and yet there could be a different conception within each mind. As long as no one asked too many questions, the flexibility of the term could be a force of cohesion and a tool for inspiring action among groups. A word with too exact a definition is brittle; its use will be limited to specific circumstances. A word too loosely defined will create confusion and appear to say nothing. A word balanced just so between precision and vagueness can change the world.

    That’s where the pomo influence comes in.

    But, there are a few grains of truth there.

    First, too often Science and Scientific Method are taken captive to ideological agendas that ride piggyback, ideas which cannot otherwise get “legs” in our world.

    A capital example, being how Rational Wiki tries to insert atheism into science (which is backed up by the sort of agendas that Science Teachers associations and August Academies have espoused . . . follow the links if you imagine I am “quote-mining” or using “insubstantial” cites):

    “Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses.”

    The best way to break such an ideological spell of censorship is to publicly put it under the glare of sunshine — and here, ideological censorship of science that would lock it out of going where the evidence leads, cannot stand on its own two feet.

    The credibility of science pivots on the ethics and credibility of truth-seeking about our world in ways that are open to the test of direct observable reality, so ideological a prioris like this cannot be acceptable.

    Ideological captivity of science is intellectually and morally bankrupt, period.

    Secondly, it is instead reasonable to see that there is a general trend in scientific work, pivoting on what we can call the Galileo Principle:

    ideas about the facts, processes and patterns/dynamics of our world should be subject to empirical, observational test — for preference, quantitatively so.

    From that, we can go to Newton in Opticks, Query 31, where we find a passage that likely distantly underlies typical “school” statements of the generic scientific method. But, Newton — no mean philosopher — has some key subtleties that yet have much to teach us (such as his remarks on limitations of findings):

    As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths. For [speculative, empirically ungrounded] Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy. And although the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general. And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur. [–> this for instance speaks to how Newtonian Dynamics works well for the large, slow moving bodies case, but is now limited by relativity and quantum findings] By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general. This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover’d, and establish’d as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving [= testing, the older sense of “prove” . . . i.e. he anticipates Lakatos on progressive vs degenerative research programmes and the pivotal importance of predictive success of the dynamic models in our theories in establishing empirical reliability, thus trustworthiness and utility] the Explanations. [Newton in Opticks, 1704, Query 31, emphases and notes added]

    There’s a lot more than fuzzy rhetoric in that, but it does not boil down to a rigid, step by step “method” that all and only scientists and those practising or learning science use. Instead, we see here that science can be viewed in terms of methodS — the plural is emphatic — rooted in the broad modern understanding of induction that embraces inference to best explanation, and targets empirically grounded, reliable truth about our world; while being aware of its own inherent provisionality. Especially, that inductive arguments seek to provide more or less strong support — as opposed to indisputable demonstration of — their conclusions. Not least, there is a version of the Black Swan effect at work: that all swans seen to date are white, does not mean that if we find an Australia later on, there may be no black swans.

    In that context, we can talk reasonably of observation and hypothesising patterns, inferring and predicting projected outcomes of test cases, then empirically testing such and drawing cautious conclusions, as generic descriptions of the logic involved. Interest in a problem linked to preliminary observation and an implicit initial hypothesis to be articulated in testable form, are of course, also implied. All within the ambit of the agenda: accurate description, plausible explanation, reliable [but provisional] prediction, utility to influence or control circumstances, situations or cases of interest.

    But, this then turns into systematised, institutionalised glorified common sense that at its best seeks to systematically identify and articulate the empirically grounded truth about our world.

    Which, will then be found (suitably adapted) in many, many fields of serious even if somewhat rough and ready praxis.

    Nothing odd with that.

    Except, if you wanted to piggyback an ideological agenda on the prestige of science, taking it ideological captive.

    But that, as already was pointed out, is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

    Science is only credible insofar as it is free and responsible.

    But then, one of our big problems today, is lab coat clad ideologies that intellectually and/or practically, work to undermine responsible, rational freedom. In particular, evolutionary materialist scientism.


  5. 5
    Seversky says:

    All this does is reinforce the view that ID is not about science but about undermining science or, at least, any science which is felt to pose a threat to the religious beliefs of its proponents.

    The scientific method is not a myth, it’s an ideal and ideals are not achieved only approached. The important thing about an ideal is it gives you a target to strive towards.

    The article quotes Feyerabend as saying scientists do whatever works. Richard Feynman took a similar view. And this is they key. Praying to cure someone of acute diabetic symptoms doesn’t work. Treating diabetes with insulin does. How do we know what insulin does? Scientists uncovered its role in glucose metabolism through curiosity, inspiration and painstaking research.

    It’s whatever works and, so far, whatever its other merits, ID doesn’t.

  6. 6
    Virgil Cain says:


    It’s whatever works and, so far, whatever its other merits, ID doesn’t.

    How would you know? How does unguided evolution work so we can compare?

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    How does unguided evolution work so we can compare?

    By hand waving. Didn’t you see it? I saw it.

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    Seversky, with all due respect, you clearly are not sufficiently familiar with developments in phil of sci over the past 50 years. Take it from the US NSTA Board in the very course of imposing naturalistic ideology in their July 2000 statement, “no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science . . . “ If they have to start with such an admission, that should tell us a few things. The conventionally labelled sciences have family resemblances but also sufficient diversity that they cannot be shoe-horned into anything narrower than, roughly, the sciences apply observationally anchored inductive reasoning to describe, explain, predict and influence or control phenomena in the world. Where, that’s before we get into behavioural and social sciences. Your cheap shot at design theory in that context simply reflects reflexive hostility. I suggest you go read a bit of Feyerabend. Start, say, here: KF

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