TED Conversations


This conversation is closed.

Is the scientific method the best way to get at the "truth"?

In their preface of Broad and Wade the following paragraph sums up their findings, “Our conclusion, in brief, is that science bears little resemblance to its conventional portrait. We believe that the logical structure discernible in scientific knowledge says nothing about the process by which the structure was built or the mentality of the builders. In the acquisition of new knowledge, scientists are not guided by logic and objectivity alone, but also by such nonrational factors as rhetoric, propaganda, and personal prejudice. Scientists do not depend solely on rational thought and have no monopoly on it. Science should not be considered the guardian of rationality in society, but merely one major form of its cultural expression.”

What we learn from Babbage, Reflections of the Decline of Science in England, and Some of Its Causes that as early as the 1830 ethical problems existed in the halls of science. Babbage refers to three practices, “Trimming consists in clipping off little bits here and there from those observations which differ most in excess of the mean, and in sticking them on to those which are too small; a species of ‘equitable adjustment’ as a radical would term it, which cannot be admitted in science.”

In this section “Of Cooking. This is an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy.” “One of its numerous processes is to make multitudes of observations, and out of these to select those which agree, or very nearly agree. If a hundred observations are made, the cook must be very unlucky if he cannot pick out fifteen or twenty which will do for serving up.” Here Babbage anticipated trials conducted or financed by drug companies where unfavorable or neutral results are shelved and only the tests giving the “right” results are published. This process is systemic in the pharmaceutical industry.


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Dec 18 2013: Do you have a better alternative?
    • thumb
      Dec 18 2013: Yes, he's suggesting an alternative, less fact (less everything actually) based scientific method, it goes like this:

      1) Get a gut reaction to a situation,
      2) Introduce the facts and logic,
      3) Compare the facts and logic to your intuition,
      4) If they agree you may be on to a fundamental truth,
      5) If they disagree, try to resolve the disagreement,
      6) If they cannot be resolved, throw out the facts, logic and intuition,
      7) Repeat step 1---Get a gut reaction.
      • Dec 18 2013: Jimmy,

        Isn't this very close to the scientific method?

        Create a hypothesis
        Create an experiment to test the hypothesis
        Check if the results support or disprove the hypothesis
        Create another hypothesis and try again (note: support of 1 experiment does not prove they hypothesis, need many experiments)
        • thumb
          Dec 18 2013: I wouldn't say that it's very close no... It resembles the scientific method but I'm sure that you can spot the differences, and the more you inspect his method the more you'll come to the conclusion that his ways can lead to just about anything...

          He's not scientifically literate at all and seems to be trying to re-invent the scientific method based on gut feelings which he feels are more correct then data...

          But yes, it resembles the scientific method.
        • Dec 18 2013: The difference is that "facts" are flexible; if your intuition keeps telling you you are missing something important, just because the "facts" say one thing doesn't mean anything---I am suggesting your intuition may be correct and the "facts" wrong.

          We know from jury trials both the defense and prosecution will present their "facts" often diametrically opposed to one another.

          The major difference between the scientific method and II is my persistent in the belief to always challenge the "facts". I do not propose a different hypothesis; I challenge the facts.
        • Dec 18 2013: The single biggest difference between the scientific method and intuitive iteration is that II depends on challenging the facts i.e. before we have a testable hypothesis it is essential to hammer away at the facts. If your intuition tells you the facts are wrong then continue to test them until there is nothing left to test.
      • thumb
        Dec 18 2013: I meant to say that it should come as no surprise that a Process implemented by humans would be subject to human error. The scientific process aims to address some of these weaknesses.

        also it had delivered incredible increases in knowledge and technically that works in just a few hundred years.

        Intuition has it's place. Great for coming up with hypothesises.not so good proving them.

        Where I see the process go of the rails is small sample sizes.
    • Dec 18 2013: As indicated I do; here is a summation of the problems with science today from "The Suppression of Inconvenient Facts in Physics: The Big Bang Scandal"

      Science is in a state of crisis. Where free inquiry, natural curiosity and open-minded discussion and consideration of new ideas should reign, a new orthodoxy has emerged.

      This 'new inquisition', as it has been called by Robert Anton Wilson[2] consists not of cardinals and popes, but of the editors and reviewers of scientific journals, of leading authorities and self-appointed "skeptics", and last but not least of corporations and governments that have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, and it is just as effective in suppressing unorthodox ideas as the original.

      The scientists in the editorial boards of journals who decide which research is fit to be published, and which is not, the scientists at the patent office who decide what feats nature allows human technology to perform, and which ones it does not, and the scientists in governmental agencies who decide what proposals to fund, and not to fund, either truly believe that they are in complete knowledge of all the fundamental laws of nature, or they purposely suppress certain discoveries that threaten the scientific prestige of individuals or institutions, or economic interests.

      Research that indicates that an accepted theory is incomplete, severely flawed, or completely mistaken, will be rejected on the grounds that it "contradicts the laws of nature", and therefore has to be the result of sloppiness or fraud. At the heart of this argument is the incorrect notion that theory overrides evidence.

      In true science, theory always surrenders to the primacy of evidence."

      Where I differ from the author is in the need to constantly challenge the "evidence", but we are totally in agreement that theory does not trump fact and fact does not trump intuition.
      • thumb
        Dec 19 2013: I agree there are issues with the implementation of the process , of the practical realities of scientific endeavours.

        I see a huge proportion of medical papers with findings later proven wrong with better experimental design and larger sample sizes.

        the popular journals are very powerful and the focus send to be on popular papers.not important ones.

        I'm all for improving on these weaknesses or recognising them.

        I think you may also be overplaying the edges of science where things are more speculative. There is a growing wave front with higher levels of uncertainty. But some things are higher confidence and everything subject to improvement based on evidence.

        yet we continue to move forward.

        I'm not sure your intuitive method addresses the problems you raise and it introduces other issues.

        no problem doggedly pursuing a hunch, within reason but hunches Need evidence to confirm they are than hunches.

        I think we could do a better job teaching about science, the process, it's strengths and weaknesses.

        by the way another reality is money. Your unsubstantiated hunches won't attract funding for long.

        I partially agree and challenging the data. Check the measurement precision, the sample size, other factors etc.

        eg if gravitational calculations indicate 10 moons but you can only detect 5, maybe you need a better telescope.

        But if the observations conclusively contradict a hypothesis and the test method is sound, the hypothesis needs work to better reflect observable reality.
        • Dec 19 2013: Truth matters. Scientific truth has replaced religious truth. The high priests of science are viewed as icons and science has placed itself on the pedestal of reason, yet so often the public perception of scientists bears no resemblance to the truth. The truth is that scientists are human and are driven by the same human emotions, desires and foibles that the average American experiences. Many scientists do have “pure” motivation i.e. they have a thirst for knowledge, they have the thrill of discovery, the fun of thinking and the desire to improve the condition of humanity through improvements in our understanding of the physical world and in such things as drug therapy and surgical techniques. To be good at anything requires personal ambition; you can add to that priority, power and prestige are coin of the realm in science.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.