The Methodenstreit and Myth of the Scientific Method

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):

1. Observation

2. Hypothesis

3. Testing/Evaluation

4. Repeat

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.


Who Cares What Philosophers of Science Say About Science?


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.



Filed under Economics, History, Home

6 responses to “The Methodenstreit and Myth of the Scientific Method

  1. I guess there are two issues, how to come up with a theory and then how to choose which theory is best. My feeling is that the best approach is to let everything rip when it comes to methods for coming up with a theory -try big data empiricalism, raw intuition, analogy whatever. The crunch comes to seeing how well each theory predicts new events as they unfold. I feel currently macroeconomists are woefully slack at the second essential step of the process. To do a respectable job they would need to start a very comprehensive and rigorous program much like that by which weather forecasting methods are assessed and refined. I had a go posting about that.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I pretty much agree with your eclectic approach towards macroeconomics. Your post was very interesting and I agree with much of it. However, I’m not sure prediction should be the aim of macroeconomics. Any system that deals with non-deterministic, non-ergodic stochastic agents makes prediction very difficult. We may be able to point out the relevant mechanisms that cause a financial crisis, but not predict them with any certainty. Here’s an interesting post making a similar analogy to economics and climate science, although from a different perspective. Anyway, I’ll definitely give the issue some more thought.

      • I sometimes worry that there is a tendency towards conflating macroeconomics with financial succurity analysis. I totally acept that something like say the share price of Apple doesn’t act in an “ergodic” fashion -(I had to look up wikipeadia 🙂 : “In econometrics and signal processing, a stochastic process is said to be ergodic if its statistical properties (such as its mean and variance) can be deduced from a single, sufficiently long sample (realization) of the process.”) -BUT I find it much harder to believe that interactions between people don’t have any commonalities -and that is really what macroeconomics is about. Human culture does change over time somewhat but people now nevertheless have plenty in common with people last year, ten years ago or even a thousand years ago. The basic laws of accounting certainly hold constant over time. It has always been true that someone will be owed whatever someone else owes.
        For instance, whenever nations have become saddled with foreign currency denominated debt they have subsequently suffered IMO. That has been the case in diverse cultural contexts over centuries. All I’m saying is that macroeconomics can and ought to address such issues in a rigorous way and that it currently doesn’t.

      • I find (based on my readings) that non-ergodic processes are fundamentally important when analyzing things like business cycles, macroeconomics, and a host of other things, not just financial economics. While I don’t doubt that culture and other institutions are reinforced over long periods of time (what Veblen referred to as institutional inertia), I also believe that humans are prone to irrational exuberance that can’t be predicted in a macro-economic model.

        I agree with your sentiment that, “macroeconomics can and ought to address such issues in a rigorous way and that it currently doesn’t“. The familiar mechanisms we frequently see during recessions, e.g. “whenever nations have become saddled with foreign currency denominated debt”, are important to understand and it’s woefully apparent that macro-economics as of now doesn’t have (or use) good tools to do so. These mechanisms can even be useful when trying to predict (like what Steve Keen did). However, the only quibble I really have is that I don’t think macro-economics should be focused on making predictions per se. That’s probably just my inner “philosopher of science” speaking, but regardless, even with better methods, I’m still not sure that macro-economics could make predictions with the accuracy we would like to see.

  2. Pingback: Sam Harris’ erroneous dismissal of the is/ought gap | Irrepressible Thought

  3. Pingback: Science and Induction | Gedanken zur Geschichte

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