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Orthodox methods and conventions of scientific research

Chapter 2 – The political sociology of science and undone research

2.3 Orthodox methods and conventions of scientific research

Historically scientific knowledge evolved from the human ability to observe and make sense of the world. A commonly held view is that it is ‘a formal activity that accumulates knowledge by directly confronting the natural world’.5 Thus, through a rigid set of scientific practices and procedures, the truth about the natural world is revealed. Initially knowledge was judged by verification. If it could be proved then it was deemed knowledge; if it could not be proved, then it was false. However, by the time of the Enlightenment there was a realization of fallibility, that the human capacity for knowing nature was limited, and that there would be unknowns and uncertainty in scientific knowledge. According to Lakatos this revelation showed that humans were both fallible and ignorant.6

All scientific research is conducted according to orthodox methods - a set of procedures or conventions that allow for a certain amount of consistency. This enables scientists, if

5 Sismondo S, 2004, An Introduction to science and technology studies, Blackwell Publishing, Malden USA, p 1

6 Lakatos I, 1978, The methodology of scientific research programmes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

not to provide definitive and equivocal evidence about the truths of the natural world, to establish a scientific consensus. Scientific claims are designed to be subject to skepticism, experiment and the challenges of rival theories. According to Edward O Wilson ‘[w]ithout this vulnerability, they will not be accorded the status of scientific theories’.7 Science, according to Wilson, ‘is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles’.8 The principles that distinguish science from pseudoscience are replication, simplicity, prediction, accuracy and consistency.

Replication in science means repeating the same experiment, preferably by independent investigation, where the findings are interpreted and confirmed or disproved, this also constitutes scientific verification. Simplicity is the view that the fewer supporting theories to account for a phenomenon the better, as was first expressed in the 1320s by William of Occam ‘What can be done with fewer assumptions is done in vain with more’.9

Prediction and accuracy can be understood together. The best theories are accurate in the predictions they make across many phenomena and those predictions are easiest to test by observation and experiment. An example of the ability to predict is clearly demonstrated by the astronomer Edmund Halley. Following the observation of a comet’s trajectory and applying Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, Halley

7 Edward O Wilson, 1998, Consilience, the unity of knowledge, Alfred A Knopf, New York, p 52

8 ibid, p 53

9 Williams R, nd. Ockham’s Razor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio National. Available at:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/podcasts/ last accessed 25 June 2013

predicted that it would return in 75 years. His prediction proved to be correct, when 75 years later the comet, subsequently named in his honour, returned.10

Consistency, on the other hand, was demonstrated by early observations of the natural world exposing the rhythms and repetitions that formed the universal laws of nature.

According to Carnap, these universal laws of nature are fundamentally unchangeable.11 However, complexities and variations in the natural world do produce exceptions to the laws. In circumstances where universal laws are not appropriate statistical laws or the laws of probability are used. These laws enable humans to make decisions based on known observations but where there is uncertainty in relation to all possible observations. For example, if all swans observed are black then it is probable that all swans are black, because it may be impossible to observe every swan. Hence, natural science operates with a degree of uncertainty. Future observations may nevertheless provide answers to the unknowns but there may be others that may never be known.

Anomalies on the other hand, according to Lakatos, may need further explanation, but nature does not allow exceptions.12 Anomalies raise a problem, according to Hess, when theories are adjusted to accommodate new data. Lakatos also supports this view, suggesting scientists do not discard a useful theory in the light of apparently contradictory evidence but attempt to harmonize the findings.13

10 Lakatos I, 1978, The methodology of scientific research programmes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge p 5

11 Carnap R, 1995, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, Dover Publications Inc, New York

12 Lakatos I, 1978, The methodology of scientific research programmes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 47

13 Lakatos, I, 1980, The methodology of scientific research programmes, Philosophical Papers Volume 1, (Ed Worrall J and Currie G) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

As well as the orthodox epistemology of science briefly described above, Robert K Merton’s assumptions about the norms of doing science included openness, transparency, critical analysis, organized skepticism, objectivity and publication through peer-review.14 Merton also emphasised the importance of originality and the significance of establishing the individual’s priority in making a discovery. These orthodox methods and conventions of scientific research do not take place in a vacuum but are embedded in and informed by broader social, cultural and economic influences.

Science, according to JD Bernal, was once ‘the occupation of curious gentlemen or of ingenious minds supported by wealthy patrons’ but today it has become ‘an industry supported by large industrial monopolies and by the State’.15 This situation has contributed to science attaining a paradoxical condition. It is at once acclaimed as the preeminent source of knowledge, invested as Hess states, with the authority to proclaim

‘what is and can be the case’,16and at the same time challenged by those threatened by its findings; this is particularly evident in environmental science.