The ugly, beautiful demarcation problem

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham...or 'Al' to his mates.

The Medieval Persian Ibn al-Haytham ‘Alhazen’ did it. The Elizabethan statesman Francis Bacon gave it a go as well. And this morning I received an educational booklet on biodiversity for Australia’s National Science Week that also attempts to poke this dead horse. What is it?

A detailed account of ‘The Scientific Method’.

I’ve lost count of the text books I’ve taught from that contain this phrase. Not only is a ubiquitous term, it’s come to be synonymous with scientific philosophy itself. If we don’t arrive at a conclusion via these steps, many people simply don’t consider it to be science.

The reason why science is taught as a method is quite simple – it gets around an issue called the demarcation problem. Theories can be taught as dichotomies of right and wrong. This is much like asking where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins; science and non-science don’t press against a neat, clear boundary. That doesn’t stop people from trying to describe one, whether it’s using the empiricism proposed by the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism or Karl Popper’s falsification. Or, as the booklet I flicked through this morning suggested, a clear wash-rinse-repeat/ step 1, 2, 3 cycle.

As a practice, science can’t avoid engaging in a methodical process. The systematic nature of the process is vital to it succeeding as a means of gaining confidence in understanding how the universe functions, allowing repetition and self-correction. But the problem is not that many attempt to describe a method, but that their attempt is singular and prefaced by a definitive. In other words, if it’s not this particular method, it’s just not science.

Science is a tricky thing to pin down. In crude terms, we can say that philosophy is a bunch of people arguing what things mean; religion is a mass of people discussing why they mean that; and science is a community of individuals debating how those things are related.

Where science differs to the others is that the means of arriving at a conclusion lies at the core of the discussion. Science works because it is not a single method, but a methodology. It is a set of values that guides the discussion on whether a particular idea concerning how two concepts might be related is useful or not. The ‘hypothesis-experiment-results-conclusion’ method might work well in many situations, however for others the definitions of each step need to be stretched to breaking point to be all-inclusive.

The pragmatic benefits of science don’t come from this lock-step method. If they did, it would be far less messy. Importantly, teaching science as a simple method risks creating an illusion of science being dogmatic and rigidly defined. As ugly as it is, the demarcation problem is an essential part of science, forcing us to debate every idea on its own merits against shared values, viewing it on a spectrum of confidence, rather than identifying steps in a method and seeing it as a dichotomy of ‘science’ and ‘non-science’.

I can’t blame the writers of this little publication for having a section titled ‘The Scientific Method’. I’ve engaged in discussions with scientists who use it, not to mention countless teachers, journalists and writers. Most of the world’s population have their science careers seeded in the classroom, where demonstrations are erroneously called ‘experiments’ and closed-investigation practical reports are drilled into us with patterns of ‘aim, materials, method, discussion, conclusion’. That is the science we are introduced to as children, and for many, the sense of a single Scientific Method never fades. Which is a shame, because it’s in that ugly demarcation zone that the most beautiful thoughts are allowed to occur.

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 11:36 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Scientific Method for Ten Year Olds:

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