The so-called “scientific method” (if there is such a thing) has undergone dramatic changes throughout history, but there is one constant that can be relied upon: the myth of scientism.

Scientism is the belief that the “scientific method” is a disinterested formula that, provided a bias-free scientist follows the steps, is guaranteed to lead to knowledge that progresses toward understanding of nature that invariably improves over time.  Philosophers of science, historians of science and sociologists of science know that this simplistic description is a myth.  On the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions this year, and the “Science Wars” that ensued in the decades following its publication in 1962, one would think that scientism went out with logical positivism and vinyl records, but some reporters remain stuck in that groove.  A recent example is found on Live Science, where Robert Roy Britt and and Kim Ann Zimmermann provided a definition straight out of the 1950s:

Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work. It is derived from the Latin word “scientia,” which translates to knowledge. Unlike the arts, science aims for measurable results through testing and analysis. Science is based on fact, not opinion or preferences. The process of science is designed to challenge ideas through research. It is not meant to prove theories, but rule out alternative explanations until a likely conclusion is reached.

This definition, followed by a step-by-step “recipe” for the Scientific Method, reveals none of the complexities of real-world science.  For instance, not all scientists  follow this method, if indeed any do.  Different fields of science use different methods.  It overlooks tacit knowledge, hunches and social pressures that short-circuit the method.  It mentions nothing of the scientific culture or consensus, Kuhn’s paradigms and scientific revolutions.  It conflates scientific discovery with scientific understanding, yet it distinguishes facts from theories as if facts cannot be theory-laden.  It ignores profound differences between operational sciences (which can be replicated) and origins sciences (which cannot, but rely on inference).  And it creates an either-or fallacy that segregates “science” from all other forms of inquiry, some of which are not only just as systematic and logical, but may be even more measurable, reliable, and amenable to knowledge.  Those are just a few of the questions that arise from the Live Science article….

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