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Tyrone Lai



A New Look at Scientific Method



Ever since the beginning of modern science there has been a belief among scientists, philosophers, and even lay people, that there is a scientific method. How this method actually works, there is conflicting opinion, but most believe there is such a method. It is this method, they believe, that enables scientists to enlarge our knowledge. In the last fifty years, however, the situation has changed. While many scientists and lay people still believe that there is a scientific method, more and more philosophers have gone over to Popper's view that there is no such thing. According to Popper there is no method that would lead us to knowledge, or even closer to it. Paradoxically, however, Popper also says that there is a method that would help us make scientific discoveries: the method of conjectures and refutations. But these discoveries are not discoveries of what the world is like, Popper says; they are only discoveries of theories that, hopefully, will be able to stand up to many attempted refutations before they are finally refuted. What the world is really like we do not know, Popper says. In carrying out scientific research we hope our theories will come closer and closer to giving us a true description of what the world is like, but while it is legitimate or even essential for us to have this hope, we can have no indication that it is ever realised (according to Popper).

I shared Popper's view on scientific method for quite some time, but an idea occurred to me somewhere around the late seventies that Popper might not be right about scientific method after all. As I have said, Popper thinks that we can have no indication whatsoever whether our theories are coming closer to the truth (even though we hope they are). The idea that occurred to me tells me that there are indications of this kind. Because of this idea, I find that I have to revamp my understanding of scientific method in major ways. The change, I have only recently come to realise, is in fact nothing less than a 'revolution' (as in 'scientific revolution').

And this is reflected in my writings. In my earlier writings on this subject I tend to concentrate on this idea that has brought about my change of view (see for example my paper, 'Empirical tests are only auxiliary devices,' British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 39, 1988, pp211-223). In my more recent writings I try to situate this idea in a larger context in order that we can more properly appreciate its importance. It is difficult to understand the importance of a bare idea, especially when it is couched in terms the public is not familiar with. The more context one can provide for the idea, the easier it is to appreciate its significance. In my recent writings I do not usually start with the idea that brought about my change of view, but with things more familiar to my readers. And this is possible because the so-called scientific method is in practice embedded in the way we follow clues. Because of the popularity of detective stories, most people have some idea how we should follow clues. They know that by following clues they can come to know things that they originally did not know. Now it does not matter that in detective stories the criminals know all along what the detectives will discover. It does not matter because the remarkable thing is that the detectives can find out by themselves, without asking the criminals (in many countries in the world today people accused of crimes have a right to remain silent). Now scientists follow clues too, and it is remarkable that they can discover things by themselves without asking God. How do scientists discover things by themselves? They do it the same way that detectives do it: by following clues. How do detectives know they have caught the right person? How do scientists know that they have found the right law (of nature)? They know not by asking the criminal or by asking God; they know because in the course of following clues they will have been following the scientific method. If we have a method we do not need to ask. This is the beauty in having a method. A method enables us to find things out on our own, without asking anybody. Because we have a method (algorithm) for adding together numbers we can all find out on our own that 1680786 + 3956142 = 5636928, doing so without counting fingers.

The scientific method is not special to science. The name 'scientific method' merely means a method that leads to knowledge. Anybody can use the scientific method, and we are using it when we are following clues. But the scientific method cannot be employed apart from following clues. If we do not follow clues we cannot employ the scientific method.

Traditionally, it is the job of philosophers to clarify scientific method, but no philosopher--or any one else for that matter--has ever explained in detail how we should follow clues! Any wonder then that no one is all that clear as to how the scientific method works. The method can only be understood in the context of following clues. If we do not pay attention to this context we should not be surprised to find the method puzzling, that is, difficult to explain. Compare this to a motor-car. We see the car's wheels turning, propelling the car forward. Now there is no mystery in this if we know that the wheels are connected to the motor-car engine. If we do not, that the car can move will become a mystery. 'No horses, and yet the car moves!'

We depend on clues to lead us to knowledge in all kinds of areas. In view of the importance that clues play in our lives we should make a study of how we should follow clues (following clues, as we all know, is not a simple matter). I have done this in my book, The Art of Detection, and I have given this new study a name: Theseology (not to be confused with theology), after Theseus of Greek mythology, who led himself out of the Labyrinth by following a thread after killing the Minotaur. In this book readers will see that in following clues we will be using the scientific method, which, to draw attention to its connection to clues, I also call the theseological method. The scientific or theseological method as I explain it in this book is very different from all the many popular versions of the scientific method. It is highly unlikely that those not familiar with my work will describe scientific method the way I describe it.

Traditionally, following clues is thought to be a form of reasoning. I have discovered that this is not so. There is more to following clues than reasoning. Following clues is an art distinct from the art of reasoning, as much as photography is, even though in both photography and following clues we reason. I provide some argument for this in my paper, 'Is Sherlock Holmes a logician or theseologist?'. For a more detailed explanations of why the art of following clues is distinct from the art of reasoning readers should consult The Art of Detection.

To help readers understand my current views on scientific method, I have written 'Four caricatures of the knowing process', in which I compare my own views as to how knowledge is obtained to four popular views. The latter all suffer from an oversight of the roles (plural) clues play in the knowing process. Clues, I explain, do not just suggest theories; they also help in determining if the theories suggested are true or close to the truth.

Philosophers have been interested in how knowledge is possible for a long time. Clues lead to knowledge; yet it is not common in philosophy to ask the question, what are clues? In 'What are clues? And why it is important that we should know', I raise the question and provide answers.

My thinking on scientific method, as well as on science itself, is still developing. I hope that as time passes I shall have more to share with my readers. In the meantime I welcome any help they can provide, including of course criticisms. I can be reached by email at [removed] Requests for reprints can also be sent to the same address.


Tyrone Lai
Department of Philosophy
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St John's, Newfoundland
Canada A2C 5S7



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