The Scientific Method is a Myth

By Daniel P. Thurs | October 28, 2015 12:25 pm

beakers and test tubes

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.

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.

The Bright Side

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. That’s particularly true of what Raymond Williams called “keywords.” A list of modern-day keywords include “family,” “race,” “freedom,” and “science.” Such words are familiar, repeated again and again until it seems that everyone must know what they mean. At the same time, scratch their surface, and their meanings become full of messiness, variation, and contradiction.

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Sound familiar? 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.

The Scientific Method, a Historical Perspective

This has been true of the scientific method for some time. As early as 1874, British economist Stanley Jevons (1835–1882) commented in his widely noted Principles of Science, “Physicists speak familiarly of scientific method, but they could not readily describe what they mean by that expression.” Half a century later, sociologist Stuart Rice (1889–1969) attempted an “inductive examination” of the definitions of the scientific method offered in social scientific literature. Ultimately, he complained about its “futility.” “The number of items in such an enumeration,” he wrote, “would be infinitely large.”

And yet the wide variation in possible meanings has made the scientific method a valuable rhetorical resource. Methodological pictures painted by practicing scientists have often been tailored to support their own position and undercut that of their adversaries, even if inconsistency results. As rhetoric, the scientific method has performed at least three functions: it has been a tool of boundary work, a bridge between the scientific and lay worlds, and a brand that represents science itself. It has typically fulfilled all these roles at once, but they also represent a rough chronology of its use. Early in the term’s history, the focus was on enforcing boundaries around scientific ideas and practices. Later, it was used more forcefully to show nonscientists how science could be made relevant. More or less coincidentally, its invocation assuaged any doubts that real science was present.

Timing is a crucial factor in understanding the scientific method. Discussion of the best methodology with which to approach the study of nature goes back to the ancient Greeks. Method also appeared as an important concern for natural philosophers during the Islamic and European Middle Ages, whereas many historians have seen the methodological shifts associated with the Scientific Revolution as crucial to the creation of modern science. Given all that, it’s even more remarkable that “scientific method” was rarely used before the mid-nineteenth century among English speakers, and only grew to widespread public prominence from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, peaking somewhere between the 1920s and 1940s. In short, the scientific method is a relatively recent invention.

scientific method in magazine articles

Percent of all magazine articles with the phrase “scientific method” in the title. (Source: Periodicals Content Index)

But it was not alone. Such now-familiar pieces of rhetoric as “science and religion,” “scientist,” and “pseudoscience” grew in prominence over the same period of time. In that sense, “scientific method” was part of what we might call a rhetorical package, a collection of important keywords that helped to make science comprehensible, to clarify its differences with other realms of thought, and to distinguish its devotees from other people. 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.

scientific method in book titles

Percent of all books published, by decade, with the phrase “scientific method” in the title. (Source: Library of Congress)

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. During the late 1800s, the majority of public boundary-work around science was related to the raging debate over biological evolution and the emerging fault line between science and religion. Given that, we might expect the scientific method to have been a prominent weapon for the advocates of evolutionary ideas, such as John Tyndall (1820–1893) or Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895). But that wasn’t the case. The notion of a uniquely scientific methodology was still too new and lacked the rhetorical flexibility that made it useful. Instead, the loudest invocations of the scientific method were by those who hoped to limit the reach of science. An author in a magazine called Ladies’ Repository (1868) reflected that “every generation, as it accumulated fresh illustrations of the scientific method, is more and more embarrassed at how to piece them in with that far grander and nobler personal discipline of the soul which hears in every circumstance of life some new word of command from the living God.”

In Public Discourse

By the twentieth century, references to “scientific method” had become a common element of public discussion. The term had accumulated a variety of meanings that allowed it to become a useful rhetorical tool. Meanwhile, the actual content of science seemed to be receding behind increasingly technical barriers. In 1906, a columnist in the Nation lamented the greater complexity of scientific knowledge. “One may say,” the author observed, “not that the average cultivated man has given up on science, but that science has given up on him.” The scientific method remained the only stable bridge to make what happened in the lab relevant to the realm of ordinary life. It showed why science was important and provided an outlet for harnessing that importance, one open even to the average citizen otherwise bewildered by scientific information.

Under such conditions, it was no wonder when some people asserted that the “greatest gift of science is the scientific method.”

In his 1932 address to journalists in Washington, D.C., physicist Robert Millikan (1868–1953) informed his audience that the “main thing that the popularization of science can contribute to the progress of the world consists in the spreading of a knowledge of the method of science to the man in the street.” Educators especially promoted the scientific method as a way of bringing science into the classroom. Before the educational section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1910, John Dewey (1859–1952) charged that “science has been taught too much as an accumulation of ready-made material with which students are to be made familiar and not enough as a method of thinking.” In 1947, the 47th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education declared that there “have been few points in educational discussions on which there has been greater agreement than that of the desirability of teaching the scientific method.”

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As science became a more powerful force in modern society and culture, thanks in part to invocations of the scientific method, growing numbers sought to take advantage of its prestige. This was especially important for social scientists, who were often seen as scientific pretenders. John B. Watson (1878–1958), the central figure in the behaviorist program, agreed in 1926 that psychology’s methods “must be the methods of science in general.” That same year, the Social Science Research Council retooled one of its subgroups into the Committee on Scientific Method. A conference held under its auspices eventually generated the massive Methods in Social Science. Journalists who looked to social science as a guide during the 1920s and 1930s also turned to the scientific method. In 1928, George Gallup (1901–1984), the founder of the Gallup poll, completed a dissertation at the University of Iowa on “An Objective Method for Determining Reader- Interest.” Two years later, he presented an article called “A Scientific Method for Determining Reader-Interest.” In both cases, he advocated examining newspapers along with readers, noting their reactions.

During the early 1900s, references to scientific medicine, scientific engineering, scientific management, scientific advertising, and scientific motherhood all spread, often justified by adoption of the scientific method. Amid the spread of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s, the ability of the scientific method to sustain a balance between an open and a critical mind foreshadowed a true “science of democracy.” Consumers in a new, advertising-driven marketplace encountered less high-minded examples in books such as Eby’s Complete Scientific Method for Saxophone (1922), Martin Henry Fenton’s Scientific Method of Raising Jumbo Bullfrogs (1932), and Arnold Ehret’s A Scientific Method of Eating Your Way to Health (1922). Eby, for one, never spelled out his complete scientific method. But he didn’t need to. Like the swoosh on a Nike shoe, the scientific method only needed to be displayed on the surface.

Lasting Value

After the middle of the twentieth century, the scientific method continued to be a valuable rhetorical resource, though it also lost some of its luster. Glancing back at the graphs of its rise in public discussion, we can see a fall as it became the subject of increased philosophical criticism. In 1975, Berkeley philosopher Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) assaulted the very notion of a singular and definable scientific method in his Against Method, suggesting instead that scientists did whatever worked. Educators, too, began to express skepticism. The 1968 edition of Teaching Science in Today’s Secondary Schools lamented that “thousands of young people have memorized the steps” of the scientific method as they appeared in textbooks “and chanted them back to their teachers while probably doubting intuitively their appropriateness.” Such scrutiny cast the scientific method as narrow and brittle, depriving it of its rhetorical utility.

At the same time, the technological products of science, which had begun to invade everyday life, promised a more effective symbol of science and a bridge between the lab and the lay world. Now, instead of new scientific fields, we find biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology. Appeal to new technologies available in everything from electronic devices to hair products has also become a staple of advertising. Likewise, modern intellectuals routinely make use of technological metaphors, including allusions to “systems,” “platforms,” “constructions,” or “technologies” as general methods of working. “Technoscience” has achieved widespread popularity among sociologists of science to refer to the intertwined production of abstract knowledge and material devices.

Still, the scientific method did what keywords are supposed to do. It didn’t reflect reality — it helped create it. It helped to define a vision of science that was separate from other kinds of knowledge, justified the value of that science for those left on the outside, and served as a symbol of scientific prestige. It continues to accomplish those things, just not as effectively as it did during its heyday. If we return to a simplistic view, one in which the scientific method really is a recipe for producing scientific knowledge, we lose sight of a huge swath of history and the development of a pivotal touchstone on cultural maps. We deprive ourselves of a richer perspective in favor of one both narrow and contrary to the way things actually are.


Newton's Apple and Other Myths About ScienceExcerpted from NEWTON’S APPLE AND OTHER MYTHS ABOUT SCIENCE, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.







Photos:Michal Ludwiczak/Shutterstock


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