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Scientific Method?

  1. Mar 22, 2005 #1

    reilly

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    After reading about the scientific method here and there in this forum, I'm considerably confused. Would someone be so kind as to explain the scientific method. And, perhaps, comment on its applicability to the day-to-day activities of working scientists, Thank you in advance.
    Regards,
    Reilly Atkinson
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 23, 2005 #2

    selfAdjoint

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    I think the reason you are confused is that several different views of how science accomplishes its ends are current. And different voices on these fora, some with an axe to grind and others from innocence, express obsolete views.

    Science is above all a human activity, carried on by a community of investigators, and open to the methods of sociology to study. These studies have pretty well refuted the old idealized induction process that used to be standard. what happens is that individuals put up theories or announce the results of observations or experiments. Some of the theorists are cranks others not. Some of the empirical evidence is bunk or faked, other evidence is not. The filter that sifts the evidence and ejects the cranks and fakers is the community. They compare each new candidate with the accumulated information of both theory and empirical evidence. They are motivated by every human emotion from highest idealism to professional jealousy, and they do a good job of sorting out the sheep from the goats.

    Then somebody who didn't know about it before looks at the new theory or the new evidence and has an idea. The new idea is put into practice and eventually becomes a newer theory or newer empirical evidence. And so science progresses by what is actually a Darwinian method; variation (new ideas) and natural selection (the community elimination of clinkers).
     
  4. Mar 23, 2005 #3

    HallsofIvy

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    The scientific method simply put: "Run and find out!" From a philosophical point of view, the scientific method assumes "realistic" philosophy- the test of a scietific theory is how well it corresponds to reality (quite different from the way mathematics works).

    More detail:
    1. Observe: Look at whatever you are interested in very carefully. Do "experiments" to clarify anything you are not sure of. Try to find out exactly what happens and how various parts are related.

    2. Theorize: Develop a number of "theories" to explain what you see. Notice that "theories" is PLURAL! Given any finite amount of data, there exist an infinite number of theories that will account for the data.

    3. Extrapolate from the theories. Assuming a theory is true what consequences can you derive that you DIDN'T observe before (this is largely where mathematics comes into play in science). In particular try to find consequences that will distinguish between theories (that hold for one theory but not another).

    4. Devise experiments that test whether those consequences are really true. If not- you have disproved the theory. If yes- maybe. There might still be other consequences that will not hold true. Notice that you can DISPROVE theories but you can never PROVE that a theory is true!
     
  5. Mar 23, 2005 #4

    reilly

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    I can speak as a physicist and an economist as well. Self Adjoint, I think yours is a good desription of how things really work. Economists, as I have remarked elsewhere are obsessed with the scientific method, and methodological purity. They often slavishly, and to their detriment, follow HallofIvy's four steps, opr the equvalent. Physicists are intellectual opportunists, and tend not to follow well defined sequences of steps. There is so much feedback between these steps, that they really lose their identity. Physics really never needed Popper to tell us that we can never fully prove a theory, and that one experiment can blow a theory out of the water -- that's just plain common sense. And in my nine years of training as a theoretical physicist, I never once heard the phrase "Scientific Method."

    I'm fascinated by the lack of response from those who discuss the scientific method as if it were gospel.

    Regards,
    Reilly Atkinson
     
  6. Mar 25, 2005 #5

    Tom Mattson

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    I never heard it after grade school myself. But like you, I went into physics, whose theories are all quantitative. I think that quantitative theories are immune to the pitfall of unfalsifiability by mere virtue of the fact that they are quantitative. You calculate a number and compare it to a measurement which yields a number. If they don't agree, the theory is false.

    I had not even heard of Popper until a couple of biology students here at PF started talking about him. I can see where the utility of his philosophy would be when doing science whose theories are formulated as verbal statements.
     
  7. Mar 25, 2005 #6

    loseyourname

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    It's odd that you say that. Now that I think about it, it's only been in my college biology courses that there has been any discussion of scientific method. It's stressed pretty heavily.
     
  8. Mar 27, 2005 #7
    You might like to consider Lakatos' Lectures on Scientific Method for criticism of the idea that there is a "scientific method". There are scientific methods and not a method, due to a whole host of philosophical problems with demarcation that Popper did not come close to solving. For problems with falsificationism (if you're interested), look here.
     
  9. Mar 31, 2005 #8
    Falsificationism, in Popper's vision, might have problems yet there is still plenty of space to argue that an improved version of it, going even beyond the Lakatosian account, is a reasonable solution, we can still define a minimal scientific method, though not strongly algorithmic. There is, still, no necessity to adopt the feyerabendian view of more 'methods' of science (actually very few scientists agree with this view). Even the inductivist methodology is still feasible, we cannot even rule out the possibility to find a purely 'algorithmic' general inductive method. Anyway there are known plenty of particular cases where the inductivist-bayesianist approach 'works' very well. The truth is that there is no consensus in the philosophy of science, my advise is to not take as granted (all) what the previous poster says in those links. Even more try to think for yourself, try to find your own solutions, there is almost nothing set in stone in the philosophy of science.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2005
  10. Apr 1, 2005 #9

    reilly

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    I certainly applaud those who attempt to extract consistent patterns of behavior and inference among scientists. But with 35+ years of experience as a scientist, I have yet to read much philosophy of science that makes practical sense to me, and I know many scientists who tend to agree. One of the major flaws of economics is its neglect of actual human behavior in the market place -- fortunately in the growing field of behavioral economics this strange neglect is being overcome. I have the sense that too many philosophers of science do not pay much attention to the way scientists actually work. Real science is messy, contradictory, like living in a big, highly opinionated, highly vocal family-- only too willing to tell you what do do, and then changing their mind. Science is home to the human condition as much as any human endeavor -- this means that, ultimately, things like persistence, will, competiveness, patience, empathy for the fortunate few, courage, are among the key factors for success in science. Like in many other fields, talent and brilliance are a dime a dozen.

    Watson's Double Helix is, in my opinion, one of the very best books ever written about the scientific method.

    Regards,
    Reilly Atkinson
     
  11. Apr 2, 2005 #10
    It's so true. I can't tell you how frustrated I've been in my undergrad studies of economics, thinking that I will eventually learn something about the way humans behave, only to be buried by more supply and demand diagrams. It's so disheartening. It's only more disappointing when realize that I am at a Jesuit institution, where the motto is cura personalis (care for the whole person) when the study of economics is so glaringly bereft of any degree of holistic interpretation of the consumer.

    I'd like to write more, but I find that I'm only very angry at the quality of my education.
     
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2005
  12. Apr 3, 2005 #11
    I think I may be one of those to whom you refer, having defended the SM in another thread in which we both posted replies. I was taught to accept and revere the SM in grammar-school chemistry classes. The method I was taught was exactly as HallofIvy describes. After leaving school, I have worked in the social work field in various capacities and have found the method to be an invaluable and flexible sociological tool, since it provides a ready-made structure for investigation. Following it's four steps does not require slavish obedience, since in order to come up with a theory one might want to test, one is probably elbow-deep in the real world of possibilties and or daydreaming about how to build a better mousetrap. Using the method is simply a useful way to establish the validity of one's proposal, requiring as it does, the rigorous testing of a hypothesis before it is put forward as a possible plan. Such testing is quite often of the 'suck it and see' variety, in such circumstances as risk-taking of that kind are acceptable.

    Kate.
     
  13. Apr 3, 2005 #12
    I believe a weakness in some applications of the "Scientific Method" is that demonstrated hypotheses tend to be regarded as linear logical truths, so refuted hypotheses are usually rejected as not worth pursuing.
     
  14. Apr 12, 2005 #13
    It is becoming increasingly clear that a distinction needs to be made in scientific analysis, between a direct question, and a rhetorical one?! Tweeking the outcome of the results in a research experiment is a form of fraud, it it not!? The evidence should be allowed to speak for itself. The example of this mathematical counterpart would be called a proof. Yes!? Note too, that in order to get intellegent answers, requires, at some point, that one be experienced with being able to ask intellegent questions. Once an answer has been derived though however, what then becomes of the value of the original question?! Sence when did the value of saying ""I don't know"" outweigh the value of ""I do know""!? And how long must the excuse of saying ""I don't know"" be mistaken to mean ""I don't know better""!? The wonder in the world doesn't require any help. Especially the deceptions that make it seem more grander, if we but keep it out of reach. The wonder pouring itself into the world is not nor ever will run out?!
     
  15. Apr 20, 2005 #14
    Several thoughts come to me about this thread. The first concerns reilly's observation that SM is not in evidence in the real world of physics. Often there is a vast gulf between an ideal and its actual implementation. We love the thought of justice, but perhaps many of us do not see it in the day-to-day practices of court systems. Yet none of us wish to throw out the ideal of justice. We would love to see it realized.

    Secondly, the larger any field grows, the more it is subject to the bell curve. Therefore, your average lawyer is average, your average doctor is average, your average physicist is average. However, the larger a field grows, up to a point, the lower the average is for that field. Consequently, clear thinking becomes a point of yayness when it arises from the muddle. Many papers are written on things that do not truly contribute. Standards lower. Bureaucracy increases, because the number of administrators also grows, as does its attendant bell curve results.

    And now I throw in opinions from my own life experience: most people are poor thinkers. Most people assume things that are baseless. Most people do not ask, "And then what caused that?" iteratively enough to get to the fundamental. Most people are math-avoidant, and this is true of physicists as well. Most people set out to prove their biases, instead of going where the facts lead them. In fact, most people can only see the facts their biases allow them to see. I mean, just look at the silly postings about God--pro and con--that come up in these forums all the time. Somehow people who seem coherent on so many topics become intellectual munchkins on this subject. Almost every one of these postings immediately abandons SM, and postulates all kinds of things that I would be ashamed to acknowledge if I were a poster who claimed to love science. Of course, we often see the same sloppiness on lots of other topics as well, because the Physics Forums are subject to the bell curve.

    So the trouble with the application of SM is the same as the troubles of retailers, hotel managers, neighborhoods, and families. The trouble is people. Until one of you geniuses figures out how to get me off this planet, this is a reality we must accept and work within.

    Finally, I do not believe the idea behind the ideal SM is really that complicated. If you let go of a pencil, and it falls to the floor, and you repeat this experiment a sufficient number of times, and always observe the same result, then you decide that it is not random chance. Otherwise, you would observe the pencil floating or moving in directions other than floorwards. If it is not random chance, you deduce a force must act upon the pencil. Altho gravity "touches" us, none of us has seen, smelt, tasted, heard or touched it. Yet we have some measure of confidence in our deduction.

    Given that deduction, we go on to explore properties and rules of the force. However, the existence of the force remains a guess, no matter how much our world picture proves the existence of the force, and no matter how much our investigations tend to explain the world. Future SM, based upon that guess, also results in guesses. Therefore, we remain cognizant that, because our guesses are not independent, we are increasing--at least statistically, if not in actuality--the likelihood that all of our guesses together are wrong.

    So we deduce and test.

    Acknowledging the finiteness of our minds, we explore on, changing as discovery leads.

    I remain commited to promoting this ideal behavior however I can. We, each of us, make a choice about this commitment.
     
  16. Apr 20, 2005 #15

    Nereid

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    It's nice to see some scientists doing research into the 'human behaviour' basis of economics, isn't it? IIRC, that research has already resulted in some significant revision of the 'rational choice' aspects!

    As Hugo has pointed out, when you study what scientists actually DO, you find it's quite a jumble, and sorting it out into clean-cut pieces that can be assembled into a beautiful vase frustrating. At least the 'observation' part of what 'philosophers of science' do is getting more attention (one of the criticisms of Popper's work is that it didn't really look hard enough at what was actually going on ... Kuhn, Lakatos and others were considerably more diligent in this respect, IMHO).

    Another aspect of science which surely accounts (partly) for why there are lots of scientists (and engineers) is that it works - kinda "whatever you did to fly me to the Moon/cure my blues/let me sip my favourite chilled New Zealand sauvignon blanc on a hot summer's day in Germany/get rid of the slugs in the garden/... just keep doing it, would you please?"

    Maybe in another thousand years, what scientists do will look quite different from what they do today?
     
  17. Apr 20, 2005 #16
    Some of the answers given so far, do not agree with the text book answers as far as Quantum theory is concerned. Quantum theories are purely predictive, the explanation is referred to as a 'model' (Standard model). The model is defined as a 'guess' and in the case of Quantum theory it is an incomplete guess because large parts of the mathematical theory cannot be explained in words. Interpretation is the Achilles heal of physical science.
     
  18. Apr 20, 2005 #17

    Tom Mattson

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    What does "purely predictive" mean?

    According to whom?

    Again: According to whom?

    (That is, according to whom does "failure to be amenable to verbal description" equate to "incompleteness"?)
     
  19. Apr 21, 2005 #18
    The Standard Model has too many free parameters, no fewer than 24 as every good encyclopedia of physics points out, neither is it impossible that some non cumulative paradigm shift will occur (though if you read many of the leading physicists ranging from Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg to Guth you'll see that they are very confident that this possibility is virtually null).

    So at least for the fact that there are too many free parameters scientists preferred to label it 'Standard model' instead of 'Standard theory'. On good reasons in my view, though going well beyond those of the above mentioned scientists (their stance that a massive enough non cumulative paradigm shift basically cannot occur is not so strongly justified as too many believe). There are hopes that LQG and string theory (probable a final form for the M-theory) will have much fewer free parameters, possible none. Remain to be seen.
     
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