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Philip Kitcher’s candid assessment of the textbook “scientific method”

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In a review of Why Trust Science? by Naomi Orestes et al., philosophy prof Philip Kitcher, author of Living with Darwin (2007), offers some interesting observations on the textbook bumf we learn as the scientific method:

The high school textbook’s caricature of scientific method is not just bad philosophy, entirely inadequate to account for scientific practice. It is also bad history, with tenuous links to the growth of early modern science. The methodological pioneers of the early modern era differed sharply in their views about how proper inquiry is to be carried out. Moreover, it was already obvious in the seventeenth century that their official suggestions were unhelpfully vague; the polymath Gottfried Leibniz famously lambasted the vacuity of the Cartesian “method.” (Speaking of the rules Descartes set for himself in the Discourse on Method, he wrote: “They are like the precepts of some chemist: take what you need, do what you should, and you will get what you want.”) Where, then, did the myth of a scientific method come from? …

The idea of a monolithic Scientific Method is mythical, then, but it is based on a genuine historical insight. From the early seventeenth century to the present, there are long chains of divergent development connecting the initially imprecise ideas of those we call the “founders of modern science” to the diversity of methods now used in various fields of research. To trace that history is to recognize how different ways of making the original suggestions more definite yielded recognizable successes, inspiring further extensions of the techniques used, a long process of revision, refinement, and reform, out of which ever more powerful techniques for pursuing a wider range of questions gradually emerged.

Philip Kitcher, “What Makes Science Trustworthy” at Boston Review

That’s true as far as it goes, but the news from physics is not especially good just now: Slapping Sabine Hossenfelder Isn’t Going To Solve Physics’s Problems.

And as for biology, well, how about starting with “Researchers: Evolution is not “survival of the fittest.”

2 Replies to “Philip Kitcher’s candid assessment of the textbook “scientific method”

  1. 1
    DerekDiMarco says:

    This is not a new observation. It’s been discussed in philosophy of science classes since long before I was born. There is not just one scientific method. For instance, astrophysics almost never involves experiments.

  2. 2
    BobRyan says:

    Einstein was riding on a bus and wondered what it would be like to travel as light travels. His thought experiment took a decade before his Theories of Relativity were created. It was a long and painstaking process, but he never rushed his work. Darwin took his thought experiment and rushed it into his Theory without actually doing any of the work that was needed. Einstein had evidence and math to support his Theories, but Darwin had neither.

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