Science and its method
In the last chapter I chose a few episodes in the history of science to illustrate the complex interrelationship between science, society and philosophical world views. The nature, role and influence of science changed historically and this had implications not just for what was regarded as science, but also how science was done, i.e. the method of science. In this chapter I will focus on how science is done, or how it is said it is done, through its method.
When scientists talk of scientific method they are usually referring to an ensemble of practices and understandings which differ from discipline to discipline. For example a physicist will often stress the role of experiments and a geologist the importance of meticulous observation, but there are few ‘experiments’ in geology and increasingly observation in physics is through the proxy of instruments. From this it would seem that there is no single algorithm for obtaining scientific knowledge but simply an ensemble of practices and knowledge that make up ‘method’. So what is it that makes it scientific? Let me be more specific. Is the ensemble to which I refer an approved list of things that are ‘scientific’, or is it the case that if scientists do it, it is ‘scientific’? The latter is indeed a charge that has been levelled against science: that science is simply a social construction. In Chapter 4 I will consider this charge in some depth, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the question of what method is supposed to be.
If the method of science is the route to knowledge which can be called ‘scientific’ then this has implications for investigations of the social world. Specifically if it is held that the social world arises from the natural world, or is continuous with it, then a reliable scientific ‘method’ would appear to be the best way to reliable knowledge of the social world. On the other hand if there is no dependable methodological route to knowledge of the natural world, but it is still held that the relationship between the natural and social world is emergent, or continuous, then the social and natural sciences may share methodological problems and solutions. There are two other possibilities. That is the social world is not emergent from, or continuous with the natural world, and there is no methodological common interest, or that even if it is, its manifest properties are so