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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

On the Nature of Science

There are two very peculiar things about the scientific method: first, how late in the development of civilization it became mainstream, and second, that is there is no generally accepted definition of what it actually is, certainly not within the philosophical community.

Hints of the scientific method date back to the astronomy of ancient Babylon (c. 1000BCE), to the philosophy of  Thales (624BCE – 546BCE) of Miletus in ancient Greece, and to the experimentation of Frederick II  (1194 – 1250) and Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) in Medieval Europe. But it was only when Galileo (1564 – 1642) turned his telescope on the heavens in 1609 that it “took”. It was only then that the scientific method was finally on the road to becoming a dominant part of everyday culture. When Kepler (1571 – 1639), and especially Newton (1643 – 1727), consolidated Galileo’s work, there was no turning back. As they say, the rest is history.

There have been various ideas put forth in the past for what science is: induction, verification, falsification, and various other ‘tions’. There have also been monstrosities like methodological naturalism; dogma masquerading as method. But all these have their critics and justly so. In the end, the current consensus in the philosophical community—to the extent there is a consensus—is that the scientific method, as a unified concept, does not exist. Strange as it may seem, there is this general idea that there is no such thing as the scientific method but that different fields of science use different unrelated methods.

The problem is that the scientific method is not what people, especially the philosophical community, expected. The philosophical community has concentrated on things like knowledge, explanations, truth, facts, naturalism, realism, and other such abstruse metaphysical concepts. Yet, they have missed the obvious—that science is something simpler, much simpler, namely model building[1] . This view of science allows us to understand the scientific method in a simple, unified manner valid across the whole spectrum of scientific endeavours and to see the shortcomings of other views of science. This model-building approach also allows us to minimize the metaphysics required. Unfortunately, it can never be completely eliminated.

Model building is not enough to specify the scientific method. You need two additional concepts: observations and parsimony. The models of science are constrained by observation, and judge by their ability to make correct predictions about future observations. Like a model boat, scientific models cannot be proved right or wrong—what sense does it make to claim a model boat is right? But we can certainly say which of two model boats is a more accurate representation of the original. Similarly with scientific models: we can say which of two models is more accurate at making correct predictions for observations. We do not have induction, verification, or falsification, but rather comparison. As Sir Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) pointed out, we have replaced certainty with progress: models are becoming more accurate over time.

Now, observations by themselves are not able to uniquely determine a model. An infinite set of models make the same set of predictions, the same way an infinite number of mathematical curves may be drawn through any finite set of points. But, once it is accepted that science is about model building and making predictions for observables, it becomes clear that adding frills—that don’t change the predictions—is counter productive. Thus we use parsimony or simplicity to make our observationally constrained models unique. It is the combination of simplicity and observations that fully constrain scientific models.

Models do more than allow one to make predictions; they provide structure and meaning to the observations. This is the point missed by the logical positivists who wanted to go straight from the observations to the meaning. Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) pointed out the folly of this with his idea of paradigms: the structures need to give order to any field of endevour. Thus we have the essence of the scientific method: Observational constrained model building, with the meaning in the model.

This is the first post to Quantum Diaries since I have been given a personal blog here. In this set of posts, I will be fleshing out these ideas based on the metaphor of science as model building. I have already put a number of posts on TRIUMF’s Quantum Diaries blog and they have been moved to my new area.  I would like to thank Quantum Diaries and TRIUMF for giving me this platform for my views on the nature of science and my distorted sense of humour. Also thanks to J. Gagné for editing the posts and turning my mishmash into something readable.

[1] Either that or they are still annoyed they earned less as philosophy graduate students than the science graduate students


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