Do you remember in middle school when you first learned of “the Scientific Method”? What your teacher taught you that day was potentially more useful than just helping you on the next science quiz. For me, trying to solve problems by systematically evaluating the plausibility of various solutions is a skill that has aided me my entire life.
If you had any doubts about the need to approach things rationally, all you had to do was tune into the impeachment hearings last week. I did. There, in plain sight, was example after example of individuals who, blinded by extreme partisanship, refused to examine the facts rationally. But partisanship is not the only enemy of rationality. Self-interest, hate, racism, sexism, bigotry, mysticism, ignorance, are just a few more examples of the enemies of rational thought.
Let’s return for a moment to your middle school science class. You may recall your teacher listing the steps of any scientific inquiry: 1) present a hypothesis, 2) test the hypothesis, 3) observe the results of your experiment, 4) refine, reject, or confirm your initial theory.
What your teacher probably did not tell you is that this method does make presumptions. It presumes three things: 1) that the world has a determinative structure, 2) that we can know that structure, and 3) that this knowledge is available to everyone. Although you are free to reject any or all of these presumptions, the fact remains that they all make sense. If the world had no structure it couldn’t be explained scientifically because there would be no predictability about it. Also, we possess at least four faculties of apprehending the world: perception, introspection, memory and reason. Finally, what makes scientific understanding public is that the facts on which it is based are available to everyone.
So how does it work? We must first begin with a problem or query. Why did something occur? How are two or more things related? What is something made of? We observe reality and then propose a hypothesis, which will hopefully be explanatory and predictive. Let me give you an example.
The flat earth theory has been around a long time. Christopher Columbus and Nicholas Copernicus used their own version of the scientific method to refute it. They hypothesized that the Earth was round. They observed that a ship sailing out of sight into the horizon has the lower part of the ship disappear before the upper part. However, if the flat earth theory were correct, then all parts of a ship would disappear from view at the same rate. Watching ships sail away, what they saw with their own eyes was the lower part of a ship vanishing before the upper part. They sensibly concluded that their original theory was more credible than the flat Earth one and, therefore, they could reasonable conclude that our planet could not be flat. This is an example of the scientific method at work.
But let’s go deeper. Over the years, scientists have refined this method of inquiry by suggesting attributes whose presence increases our confidence in the conclusions of our inquiries. For example, what makes fluorescent lights work? Let’s imagine that someone proposed that gremlins live inside each tube and they strike their pickax to create a spark, which lights the bulb. To test this theory and others, a scientist looks to a few important criteria:
Testability. There must be a test we can perform to prove or, better yet, disprove a theory. We can look closely at the bulb and we see no gremlins. So the proponents modify their idea to suggest that these gremlins are invisible but emit sound. We then use sound sensitive equipment, which can detect such emissions but, again, no sound registers. Not deterred, they then suggest the gremlins are invisible and are not susceptible to detection of any kind. We may now conclude that the gremlins theory is not testable and, therefore, by definition, is unscientific.
Fruitfulness. The best hypothesis is the one that is able to make the most successful and novel predictions. Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that light rays traveling near massive objects would appear to bend because the space around them is curved. At the time he proposed this, it ran contrary to the accepted theory that light, having no mass, traveled in Euclidean straight lines. Einstein’s theory also contradicted the universally embraced Newtonian view of the universe. In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington mounted an expedition to Africa to observe a total eclipse of the sun. His observations demonstrated that stars near the sun during the eclipse did appear to have moved more than those further away and that the amount of their movement was what Einstein and not Newton had predicted.
Scope. According to scientists, the best hypothesis is the one that has the greatest scope. That means it explains and predicts the most diverse phenomena. As I noted earlier, Einstein’s hypothesis had greater scope than Newton’s and therefore became favored by scientists as the preferred theory.
Simplicity. The best theory is the one that makes the fewest assumptions. Medieval philosopher William of Ockham is credited with promoting this universally embraced idea known as Ockham’s razor. As applied to our earlier example, our scientific explanation of the operation of a phosphorescent bulb is much simpler than assuming the existence of unseen, unheard and undetected gremlins.
Conservatism. By this, scientists suggest that the best theory is the one that adheres to established beliefs. Let me give you an example. One day, I turn on the television and I see on a late night talk show an actor who I thought had passed. The idea that he now is a zombie would violate the natural law (and my belief) that the dead stay dead. A more rational approach might be to see if this really is the same person or perhaps he was never dead in the first place. Under the principle of conservatism, the preferred theory is the one that is most in line with what we perceive to be natural laws.
The scientific method, or simply put, the rational approach to the search for the truth, is perhaps the most important lesson we learned in middle school. It teaches us to look openly, without emotion, sentiment, prejudice, or irrational appeal, to the unvarnished reality of what we are observing. Personally, I can’t think of any time in my life when I have been more grateful to my 8th grade science teacher.