The Problem of the Method

In Science and Philosophy

Photo by Lili Kovac on Unsplash


Science and its workings has always been a central issue in the intellectual debate at any time. The most coherent articulation of a scientific manifesto dates back to the 17th century, when the English scientist and statesman Francis Bacon developed his own scientific method. This article aims to expand on what I call ‘the problem of the method:’ why is science in a state of disarray? Why pseudo-sciences and dubious claims about sciences have been plaguing the current debate? I will also address a key issue: does science need a method, i.e. a way it can yield viable results? In order to answer this question, I will analyse the Baconian method, Popper’s method, and Feyerabend’s scientific anarchy. Afterwards, I will draw conclusions. Let’s start our brief foray into philosophy of science!

Francis Bacon and early-modern science

Francis Bacon claimed that prejudices plague science. In his key work, Novum Organon (the early-modern response to Aristotelianism), he labelled such prejudices as idola. Idola means ‘image’ (from Greek eidolon, whence English ‘idol.’). Such idola,which originate from one’s family or national background, negatively impacts on the development of science. Thus, the first step towards a more reliable type of science is to get rid of such superimposed images. This is not something new in the history of early-modern philosophy: Michel de Montaigne had described how customs influence the way we think; Bacon does the same in the scientific arena.

 Bacon’s method relies on the notion of induction: by ‘induction’ I mean the results that can be obtained by observing and studying a phenomenon and, after such a careful scrutiny, draw appropriate conclusions. Again, in order to do so, one’s mind has got to be free. It goes without saying that Bacon’s induction still has a relevant role in the way science works even today. Anyway, Bacon did not address a problem that is central to the study of science, i.e. how can we define a theory as being ‘scientific?’ In other words, when and how does theory is such? Karl Popper answers this question, and we are now going to see his criteria.

“By far the best proof is experience” — Novum Organum, I, 70

Karl Popper and science in the 20th century

Karl Popper is maybe more well know for his discussion of intolerance: if we allow intolerant opinions to be up for grabs in the public domain, then we will gradually lose toleration (sounds familiar?). But he was also an influential philosopher of science, who tried to define when a scientific theory can be regarded as such; his scientific achievement is the notion of falsifiability.

 If we want a proposed theory to be scientific, then it will be falsifiable. 

But what does Popper mean by falsifiable? 

Put simply, it means: to contain the capacity to be proven wrong.

We all know that the UK is a constitutional monarchy; suppose somebody says the UK is a republic. How can you counteract such a claim? By saying that the UK went through a political process known as ‘Bloodless Revolution,’ it is possible to claim (without being contradicted) that the UK, at the end of such a process, had become a constitutional monarchy

Therefore, on a verifiable basis, it is impossible to conclude that the UK is a republic. Thus, according to Popper, if a theory cannot pass the falsifiability test, then it cannot be regarded as ‘scientific.’ This, in turns, triggers significant questions, with a bearing on the present scientific debate. Are anti-vaxxers claims justifiable? No, they cannot be justified because their claims cannot be falsified. 

And if a scientific theory cannot be falsified then it falls under the category of pseudo-science. It goes without saying that claims that vaccines have potential for physical damage are untrue and most dangerous (as the recent increase in case of measles unfortunately proves). 

Popper’s approach is noticeably different from Bacon’s; whilst Bacon’s method is based on the assumption that it is possible to scientifically define a phenomenon by means of observation, this is not the case for Popper. Induction is not reliable, and Popper explains it in a very funny way

imagine a turkey being fed on a daily basis

On an inductive basis, he would anticipate being fed even on Christmas Day; unfortunately, its assumptions are not met, because he is killed to be eaten for the Christmas meal. Thus, only the falsifiability criterion can determine whether a theory is scientific or not. Bacon was not right. As we shall soon see, even Popper’s falsifiability can be contradicted; it is the case because Paul Feyerabend believes in anarchy in science. And this has grim consequences.

“A theory that explains everything, explains nothing”

Anarchy in science: Feyerabend and the lack of method

If both Bacon and Popper had argued for the necessity of a scientific method, this is not the case for Feyerabend, who vocally made the case for epistemological (i.e. knowledge) anarchism. 

In his manifesto Against Science, Feyerabend questions the diverse methodological choices made by scientists. He argues scientific progress can be only defended by granting scientists leeway: dogmatism, induction, and falsifiability constitute a real obstacle to progress. 

If we want science to flourish, then we should rule out applying any theory to phenomena

Feyerabend’s take on science is dangerous, because it allows people to say that everything can be classified as science. Anti-vaxxers positions or even the ignorance of the consequences of STIs (sexually transmitted diseases) risk triggering the dangerous consequences we have been witnesses of for quite sometime by now: if people believe vaccines are unreliable, then they would not have their children vaccinated. If young people believe unsafe sex is better than safe sex, it is no wonder STIs have been on the rise. For the sake of impartiality, one could argue a free science is not a bad thing; that’s true, but free and anarchicare not synonymous. Whilst a free science is most desirable, an anarchic science isn’t, and the consequences can be clearly seen around the world.

The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. — Against Method, 14.

Conclusions: Do we need a method?

The philosophical question underlying this article is if a method is most desirable. By ‘method’ it is meant a way to organise and direct science so as to allow it to produce reliable outcomes.

 Bacon had singled out induction as a reliable method: observe and draw conclusions. But, according to Popper, induction is misleading: the turkey wasn’t expecting to be killed. 

On Popper’s view, if science is to yield results, then it has got to rely on falsifiability: theories are scientific provided they can be falsified.If it is not the case, then they are pseudo-science.

 Feyerabend defends anarchy in science: without constraints, on his view, science can better work. Is it true? No, because if misleading theories that cannot be questioned are up for grabs, then the consequences can be easily predicted. Also, what Feyerabend is trying to argue is that science better works without methods; indirectly, even this assumption is dogmatic, because his epistemological anarchy is, to a certain extent, a method

In conclusion, yes. A method is a desideratum to scientific research, and it is also a defender against ignorance and pseudo-science.

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