The scientific method — what about the philosophical method?

By Ken Perrott 30/01/2012

I enjoy the In Our Time Podcasts with Melvyn Bragg. The subjects are very wide-ranging and always informative.

His last one was on The Scientific Method. It basically discusses the evolution of scientific methods from a philosophical viewpoint. The participants were:

  • Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge;
  • John Worrall, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the LSE and
  • Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at University College London.

Personally, I would have welcomed inclusion of a practising scientist to bring some practical insight into the discussion. Still, I did find the historical survey of philosophers ideas on the scientific method interesting. But it got me thinking – these philosophers seem so concerned about the scientific method – and yet no one talks about the philosophical method!

What is the philosophical method?

What methods do philosophers use? And how have these evolved over time? And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods? Is this because philosophers are happier critiquing other areas and avoid their own?

For example. While I thought this discussion did treat the subject fairly the descriptions of scientific method offered by various philosophers over the years do strike me as “just so” stories. I get the feeling that the philosophers concerned are presenting their pet model. Evidence quoted is usually anecdotal, more for example rather than support. The Copernican revolution, or the evolution of Einsteinian mechanics out of Newtonian mechanics are used to illustrate a thesis, rather than testing the hypothesis by analysing the data from the history of a large number of scientific theories.

Now, I could never have got any of my research results accepted for publication with only anecdotal and illustrative evidence. Good data, statistically analysed to show significance for claims, was always expected. The standards for philosophical theories seems to be a lot lower. How many philosophers really take data collection and analysis seriously?

The other thing that strikes me about these “just so” stories are that they always seem to ignore the human factor. Scientific method is often presented as an algorithm or flow chart – scientists behave this way and they produce hypotheses which are checked experimentally, etc.

But scientists are humans. They are just as prone to emotions as any other people. And in fact current scientific understanding of decision-making indicates that emotions are very much involved in our seemingly rational considerations. Where else do scientists get the passion for the work they do? Creativity does not come from mechanical application of methods. And scientists are also prone to prejudice, fantasy,  attachment to preconceived ideas, and confirmation bias as anyone else. The possible consequences of this need to be recognised and scientific methodology must compensate for it.

That’s why I like Richard Feynman‘s description of scientific method as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” This is a better description of the human reality of scientific research than any descriptive, or prescriptive, flow diagram of “scientific method.”

Why does this matter?

Well, for two reasons:

1: How often does one read material from opponents of science using pop versions of scientific method and philosophy of science to justify their rejection of, or denial of, scientific knowledge?  Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science. We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement! They are equating acceptance of the current scientific understanding as equivalent to belief in a geocentric universe! (See “Galileo Movement” Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia).

2: Post-modernist and ideological motivated concepts of the philosophy of science do get circulated in academic circles.  In the past I have heard some of these descriptions presented by local science managers and suspect that these ideas can influence management and human resources teachings via philosophy of science and sociology of science inputs. The danger is that this influence decisions on science funding and investment.

Maybe some of the cock-ups we have seen in science management and New Zealand over the years could be traced back to ideology and misunderstanding about the nature of scientific research picked up by managers during their training. Maybe not all these mistakes were due to incompetence.

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0 Responses to “The scientific method — what about the philosophical method?”

  • I haven’t much to add to this! The best description of philosophy I can come up with is mutually incompatible “just so” stories. Which is funny, because consistency is the one stated measure for what a philosophic description needs to meet, at least what I know of.

    I haven’t read Kuhn, but I can’t seem to get hold of a decent definition and test of “paradigms”, instead someone described him as having used ~ 20 different descriptions throughout. (I’m more sympathetic with Popper, since statistical testing is an actual method that science have adopted heavily.)

    Such a “science of philosophy” is interesting, but I think even better would be a “science of science”. There are some starts in measurement theory, but it is focused on what is narrowly useful on the ground, not the overarching science you envision.

    Btw, I know Feynman said something along the line of ‘to not fool oneself’, for example:

    ” The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
    From lecture “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society”, given at the Galileo Symposium in Italy (1964).
    Variant: Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    But the quote you claim you have already attributed to deGrasse Tyson:

    “Science is doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality”.

    It would not be surprising if deGrasse Tyson has polished on Feynman. Do you have an original reference? It is, as you note, a core principle.

  • Like science, philosophy uses a number of methods for its research, and it also uses a number of methods to confirm its claims. And like science, we have to be wary of confusing the context of discovery, the context of explanation, and the context of justification. And, we also have to be a bit wary of stereotyping how things actually work.

    Some philosophy is taught as literature. One studies the great texts, and one uses and comments upon the insights of past philosophers. There is rather a lot of this kind of philosophy, and unfortunately, its often the way that the subject is taught as a subject at undergraduate level.

    Some philosophy approaches the world using the tools of logic. It analyses the language and language like claims made by people, and tries to draw conclusions from them based on the logical consequence of these claims. This is –roughly– the anglo-american analytic tradition.

    Some philosophers create “models” of how things might work. So Kuhn for instance had a model of how science works, based on his historical analyses, and he sought to show how his model of science was in fact a general model of science. Scientists do the same thing of course. They develop a model of predator-prey interactions, or of river braiding patterns, and then seek to show how its applies in lots of cases. A model is part explanation, part generalisation, and part tool for getting a handle on things.
    Often this process is iterative and reflective. By that I mean that a researcher starts off with some observations of a phenomena, start building a model or explanation or a theory, and then refine this with further observations.
    In philosophy of science, the observations are about scientific practice. So my own work used the actual practice of confirmation in the historical sciences as my “observations.” I then tried to build a model of one means of confirmation that the historical sciences used. The aim was to show that many good historical sciences use a common set of confirmation strategies (mainly based around corroborative evidence), and that this is why we should have confidence in these sciences. I’ve built a model of the underlying logical structure to the confirmation strategies of the historical sciences that works like a predator prey model in evolutionary biology: it hopefully explains a set of phenomena, and gives us a tool for understanding the world. And I tried to utilise as much “data,” in the form of real scientific practice, as I could.

    These different different approaches to philosophy –and science– overlap, and sometimes re-inforce each other. And of course, they get furiously debated. Often, however, its not a big picture debate, but about the appropriateness of one method versus another in a particular context. Unfortunately, that debate is often tucked away in various journals, or a sideline within another argument. So debates about the nature of mind are particularly caught up in methodology, and critiques of method. Should we rely on neuroscience to tell us what its like to think given its often just a lot of brain imaging studies that simply locate neural activity, or does personal reflection on “what its like” to be a thinker still matter? Where does evolutionary psychology fit into the picture, for if our own thinking is the result of “evolved” preferences, is self reflection reliable? These “philosophical” debates are very much critiques of method. But as I say, they are tucked away in obscure specialist journals.

    Finally, its worth noting that before there were scientists, there were “natural philosophers.” And at least one school of philosophy, the tradition I belong to, sees no clear line between philosophy and the sciences. We all investigate the world, and seek to understand it. And we are all doing our best not to be fooled by the world.

  • Yes, Ben has put it well. Analytical philosophy, epistemology, logic – these are some of the frameworks and tools used by philosophers to understand and explain the world or the truth in an argument or stance. I don’t think philosophy of science is a collection of ‘so-so stories’ at all, but part of the same process of reasoned enquiry. Surely it is a bit unuseful to argue a discord between philosophy and science when the latter is underpinned by the former and the former informed by the latter? To be sure, as Ben said, philosophy is a broad area, as is science, and each contains elements or areas which may be more or less speculative, practical, or otherwise ‘useful’, and each contains quite different methodologies. It seems quite common amongst the natural sciences for people to assume philosophy is either a) ‘fluffy’ b) anecdotal, or c) at best a means to examine to historical evolution of science. But as Ben says, logic is a very powerful tool which certain schools of philosophers use. A Bayesian approach to probability, for example, can be seen as both a statistical tool and a way of testing the internal logic of a belief (it doesn’t necessarily reuire quantitation, but can be an expression of the logic of an argument). It is a tool used in the philosophy of science and is essentially both. I know you’re interested in this area Ken, and I think it very good that you pursue such a dialogue – I’m always interested to read your views on this.

  • Torbjorn – yes I originally picked up the quote from Tyson but have since been told it was originally Feynman’s.  But I have no reference.

    Ben, I take yor point about these discussions being tucked away in obscure journals – its what I would expect.  My gripe is that attacks on the scientific method have become quite public as part of the culture wars – especially over evolutionary and climate science. Some philosophers of science have come forward to support one side or the other (eg the Dover case).  But their analysis can differ radically depending on their ideological commitments. I think this should be made clearer – when they claim to give a philosophical analysis we should ask -“Whose philosophy?” (Mind you I find myself disagreeing even with some philosophers sympathetic to science – I find they attempt to make science fit into their model and don’t recognize what it is really like).

    Personally I also don’t see a clear line between philosophy and science. Some scientists are consciousness of that – most not but they still intuitively do philosophy in their science work. However I think we are also intuitively suspicious of any attempt to be dominated by philosophy or lectured to by philosophers. Scientific ideas should be tested against reality – not ideological “paradigms”.

    But it seems to me that those philosophers who also do science deserve the most listening time. This seems to occur a bit in neuroscience/philosophy.

  • Edward, I myself am not attempting to “argue a discord” – but I do think that there is one between some ideologically motivated philosophers and science. Let’s face it – some philosophers and sociologists of science have willingly testified for ID and against evolutionary science.

    Criticism across the philosophy/science boundary does seem to raise professional sensitivities. But I still think Hawkings was partly right (but didn’t clarify it) when he said philosophy was dead. The fact is that science had to make a break with medieval religious philosophy and theology  for the scientific revolution to occur. And there are still some , mainly theistic philosophers, who hark back to medieval approaches.
    I agree Bayesian approaches can be powerful – but they have also been used in very unscrupulous ways. We are right to be a bit suspicious especially when they are used to reinforce subjective ideas.

    I think part if the reason scientists may not think well of philosophers is down to the way we have sometimes been attacked by ideologically motivated philosophers. We actually get very little exposure to the good philosophers.

  • There are a few reasons why Feynman is squirming here. Top of my list is that he is really angry that he has to school a journalist on the meaning of a common 3 letter word. (The journalist may even be dumb enough to believe in perpetual motion and cold fusion.)

    Derek, if you want to learn some physics and how to use technical words correctly, try Feynman’s lectures at (they have recently been made free on-line).

    A word of warning; although written for students, the lectures are too difficult for most. On the other hand, they are full of wonderful insights and real-world examples.