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
and describe some phenemenon.
a hypothesis to explain the phenemonon and its relationship
to other known facts, usually through some kind of mathematical
the hypothesis to make predictions.
those predictions by experiments or further observations to
see if they are correct.
not, reject or revise the hypothesis.
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."
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
...back to top
Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us We're Experts! How Industry
Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Tarcher/Putnam,
2001, chapter 8.