I recently got into a debate with a friend, who is a physics major, over the definition of science. He claimed that science is what we call the scientific method, which goes something like this (many of you probably remember being taught something like this in middle school or high school):
You can flesh out the process, add more stages, etc., but the essence of the scientific method is captured by these steps.
This conversation reminded me of the economic debate between Carl Menger and the Historical School of Economics (the renowned Methodenstreit). Most commentary on the debate is quite terrible (especially from the Austrian School), asserting that Menger eviscerated his intellectual opponents. But regardless, Menger made some powerful arguments during the debate, and they capture what is fundamentally wrong with the scientific method.
The German Historical School has a rich intellectual history and there are various distinctions that can be made within the school. One of the most important (and neglected) distinctions is between the “older” historical school, led by Wilhelm Roscher, and the “younger” historical school, led by Gustav von Schmoller (as you’ve probably guessed, the older historical school came first). One of the persistent themes of the older historical school was an extreme form of empiricism. For example, Roscher emphatically wrote “we do not hesitate to declare economic science a pure empirical science. For us history is not a means, but the objects of our investigations.” Menger responded to these claims in his famous book, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, rightly insisting that any empirical observation relies on some non-empirical assumptions. He specifically cited the assumptions of identity, continuity, and measurability:
Every exact law of nature, for whatever realm of the empirical world it may claim validity, is based on two unempirical assumptions. First, that all concrete phenomena of any definite type (e.g., all oxygen, all hydrogen, all iron, etc. . . .) are qualitatively identical, and second, that they can be measured in an exact way. In reality, however, the above phenomena are neither strictly typical, nor can they be measured in an exact way.
The scientific method in an unqualified form is essentially the same argument that the historical school was making (albeit in a cruder form), claiming that scientific laws/theories can be derived from observations or facts. The problem with this position, and this is one of the points that Menger made, is that observations need classification. The problem with taking a “purely empirical” approach to science is that you can’t distinguish between facts and relevant facts. Imagine if I went outside and wrote down everything I saw. The color blue, a soccer ball, the blaring sirens, etc. Now imagine trying to come up with a hypothesis to explain all of these facts I have collected. It would be absolutely ridiculous. If we have some form of classification, something to distinguish between relevant information and worthless data, then maybe we can get somewhere. But a classification system requires a theoretical apparatus and a hypothesis already in mind.
In fact, one of the lessons learned from the history of science is how experiments have led to wrong conclusions because of the flawed theory behind the observations. In other words, experimental results can be shoddy if the knowledge informing them is faulty. In the 19th century it was thought that hydrogen atoms were the basic building block from which other atoms were constructed (Prout’s hypothesis). Molecular weights of naturally occurring elements and compounds were considered fundamentally important (in light of the atomic theory of chemical combinations), so 19th century chemists painstakingly made measurements of molecular weights based on Prout’s hypothesis. However, these measurement became mostly irrelevant when it was realized that molecular weights of naturally occurring elements were based on a mixture of isotopes in proportions that had no theoretical significance. Old experimental observations were set aside in light of new theory.
So not only is the scientific method a horrible way of doing science, it’s also contrary to how science actually works. Philosophy of science has known this for decades and you’d be hard pressed to find any philosopher that would think the scientific method is an adequate definition of science. Heck, Carl Menger was writing about it in the 19th century. Unfortunately, many scientists scoff at the philosophy of science, regarding it as a useless exercise, despite the fact that these same people often implicitly appeal to statements that are informed by philosophy. And it’s reasons like this that many smart people will continue to appeal to stupid things and rely on flawed methods of reasoning like the scientific method.
1. Chalmers, A. F. What Is This Thing Called Science? Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1999. Print.
2. Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. Print.
3. Hodgson, Geoffrey Martin. How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.