Environment in Crisis

Environmental Impact Assessment

Naive Inductivism
Theory Dependence
Myth of Method

Uncertainties in Science


Back to Main Menu..

Myth of the Scientific Method


The standard description of the scientific method makes it sound like an almost machine-like process for sifting and separating truth from error. The method is typically described as involving the following steps:

  • Observe and describe some phenemenon.
  • Form a hypothesis to explain the phenemonon and its relationship to other known facts, usually through some kind of mathematical formula.
  • Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
  • Test those predictions by experiments or further observations to see if they are correct.
  • If not, reject or revise the hypothesis.

"Recognizing that personal and cultural beliefs influence both our perceptions and our interpretations of natural phenomena, we aim through the use of standard procedures and criteria to minimize those influences when developing a theory," explains University of Rochester physics professor Frank Wolfs. "The scientific method attempts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing a hypothesis or a theory." One way to minimize the influence of bias is to have several independent experimenters test the hypothesis. If it survives the hurdle of multiple experiments, it may rise to the level of an accepted theory, but the scientific method requires that the hypothesis be ruled out or modified if its predictions are incompatible with experimental tests. In science, Wolfs says, "experiment is supreme."

This is all well and good as far as it goes, but the description of the scientific method that we have given above is actually something of a myth. Not only is it a myth, it is a fairly recent myth, first elaborated in the late 1800s by statistician Karl Pearson. Copernicus did not use the scientific method described above, nor did Sir Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin. The French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes is often credited with ushering in the age of scientific inquiry with his "Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences," but the method of Descartes bears little relation to the steps described above. The molecular structure of benzene was discovered initially, not in a laboratory but in a dream, as was Einstein's theory of relativity. These theories did not originate through some laborious process of formulating and modifying a hypothesis, but through sudden moments of inspiration. The actual thought processes of scientist are richer, more complex, and less machine-like in their inevitability than the standard model suggests. Science is a human endeavor, and real-world scientists approach their work with a combination of imagination, creativity, speculation, prior knowledge, library research, perseverance and plain old blind luck-the same combination of intellectual resources, in short, that scientists and nonscientists alike use in trying to solve problems.

...back to top



Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001, chapter 8.


© 2003 Sharon Beder