Post No.: 0256
The ‘scientific method’ specifies that a hypothesis must be empirically testable (testable via observations), falsifiable (there must be some way for someone to attempt to show that a hypothesis is false), logically consistent (be without internal contradictions), and any test must be replicable and objective (independently testable by others) and transparent (one’s methods must be publicly shared).
The scientific method is unnatural – if approached correctly, it’s about trying hard to prove oneself wrong, or to dispassionately and objectively prove to one’s toughest critic that one is right. At its core, the scientific method tries its best to eliminate biases (e.g. our self-interests to find a particular result, our laziness to be thorough, our individual experiences (anecdotes and personally-reported experiences suffer from our biased accounts and memories)). The scientific method is the best method we know for obtaining the most objective-as-possible truths regarding how things are and how things work.
Now too many people mistakenly state that something has been ‘scientifically tested’ when they really mean ‘tested/analysed using modern technology’ – but science isn’t necessarily about the fancy equipment used but the systematic methodologies we employ to try to remove any biases and subjectivity in our research as much as possible.
And sometimes the term ‘controlled experiment’ is confused with an experiment that includes a ‘control group’ – ‘controlled experiments’ involve controlled variables that are held constant to stabilise their effects (e.g. holding the temperature of the laboratory at a fixed value throughout the experiment). A ‘control group’ is a group that receives a different treatment to the group receiving the treatment under investigation, where the results gathered from these two groups allows a comparison to be made. Any other use of these terms is misleading.
Arguably, literally anything and everything that exists or has an effect on the real world can be studied and analysed via the scientific method, given the opportunity. For instance, even art can ultimately be scientifically investigated – there are patterns between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art (fuzzy or rough patterns but patterns nonetheless). It’s not to say that with this data one will be able to create unanimously acclaimed pieces of art but one could increase the odds of creating something that appeals to more people – in the same way that findings from scientific investigations can improve the chances of couples conceiving children or people avoiding cancer but it doesn’t have to guarantee everyone will in order to be scientific. Scientific conclusions come with differing levels of certainty or confidence.
It’s just that some things, particularly anything that involves whimsical and capricious humans e.g. working out how to create a hit song, a piece of valuable art or a winning food dish, involve countless, complex combinations of variables – most of which will likely concern trying to work out those whimsical and capricious impulses, moods and behaviours of humans! So we cannot just analyse a song itself, a piece of art itself or a food dish itself – we must look at numerous external factors to a song recording, canvas or plate that make a song a hit, a piece of art desirable or a dish delicious, such as the status of who sings the song, the provenance of the piece of art, the familiar and comforting flavours and smells of the foods a person was personally raised with when young, along with shifts in cultural trends (and the reasons for these) and each individual’s particular momentary mood at the time of judging, and so on and on. It’d therefore require a multidisciplinary approach covering neuroscience, psychology, sociology, economics and probably more. The point is that what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t completely random or unpredictable, but it’s so complicated that we might classify a lot of what’s involved as practically luck sometimes, which leads to notions like ‘it’s more of an art than a science’.
It’s important to note here that even if we could get the data in the right format, accuracy (closeness to the true values) and precision (consistency of multiple measurements, or sometimes the resolution of measurement) – which operational definitions and measuring methods we (arbitrarily) choose matters greatly, how we weight various independent variables against each other matters greatly too, some correlations or patterns may be spurious if we’re measuring a lot of variables at once (and correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate a causal relationship either – read Post No.: 0134 for more), averaging traits isn’t always the right approach, not all things follow a natural distribution curve, seemingly unrelated or unforeseen exogenous/external factors can play a key role, and so forth, and these will need to be considered.
For example, any given competition to assess who’s the best at something can come in a myriad of different approaches (e.g. round-robin, knockout tournament, top two or three go through, timed or not timed, each contestant gets a question or on-the-buzzer, aggregate all scores throughout the rounds or a clean slate in the final, how to decide the running order for the contestants or rounds, etc. – with each permutation of format potentially creating a different winner; just like different voting systems can potentially produce different winners). Methodologies and operational definitions in science can thus still be subjectively selected – and that’s why we must read about and scrutinise them to see if they’re appropriate for what they’re claiming to be testing for. Read the details and don’t over-extrapolate conclusions (e.g. a team with a great chance of winning a knockout tournament may not have a great chance at winning a round-robin competition. And that’s why with e.g. drugs, if they’re found to work then we can only confidently say that they worked under those specific conditions they were tested under, while being reasonable).
And even if the data gathered is objective – the interpretations of what the data is saying and what to do about it will always be down to subjectivity and therefore biases (e.g. is 3 people dying from something per year acceptable or atrocious?) Even choosing what to study in the first place is affected by bias!
However, in principle, it still stands – anything and everything that exists or has an effect on the real world can be investigated via the scientific method if we can gather enough data, and maybe have enough computing power/time. Ultimately, in principle, the scientific method can be used to analyse and answer anything that is empirically testable and falsifiable. It’s just that on a practical level it could be the case that some things are ‘more of an art than a science’ because of the sheer complexity and chaos involved regarding some questions and spheres.
Regarding whether employing the scientific method is appropriate in all contexts or cheapens the value of life, love, morality and so forth – well just like we cannot seem to figure out how consciousness ultimately arises from basic non-conscious chemical elements yet we know that consciousness exists and we know it when we experience it, the same could be said of things like love too. Love, art, beauty, virtue, honour, goodness, integrity and other human-level truths, and consciousness itself, are apparently ‘emergent properties’ i.e. we cannot predict them from a fundamental physics level (e.g. what makes some things with quarks and leptons exhibit consciousness and other things not?) even though they all exist in the physical world. They occur at the cultural human level or at least biological level.
Therefore we can study things like religion or love via science or reductionist levels of inquiry without cheapening them or missing their point because there are different levels of understanding something. Darwinian biological evolution makes no sense or is irrelevant when we look at the level of quantum mechanics, but this doesn’t deny the truth of Darwinism. We wouldn’t say Darwinian biological evolution doesn’t exist just because we cannot find it in quantum mechanics. Classical mechanics (which includes relativity) and determinism rule above the atomic level, whilst quantum mechanics and stochastic/probabilistic theories rule below the atomic level. No single theory (yet known at least) presents a complete account of everything. This is how science works – only certain religions claim to have a complete account of everything!
So just because we cannot seem to figure out how consciousness arises from basic elements and molecules, it doesn’t mean anyone denies that you or I are conscious. Therefore religion or love, for instance, can be broken down into its fundamental causes and mechanisms (e.g. via neuroscience and evolutionary biology) but this doesn’t deny the truth of what religion or love may mean or feel like to us at a socio-cultural or personal psychological level. It doesn’t deny their ‘realness’. Phenomena and properties at both levels are real, and a good explanation takes them both into account. They’re just different levels of understanding something that don’t exclude the findings or truth of something on another level. Hence we can study things, like faith or love, at multiple levels without exclusion or exclusivity.
From one level of inquiry, love is just things like photons hitting the retinas or sound waves hitting the ear drums and then converting into electrochemical signals in the brain, which in turn stimulate further chemical signals that modify one’s heart rate, perspiration and breathing, for instance. From another level it’s fluffy love at first sight, fear, beauty or sadness, for instance. From yet another level it’s biological life, natural selection and survival of the fittest. From yet another it’s a consequence of the physical forces at play allied with the initial conditions of the universe. And possibly more. None are necessarily wrong and all can be correct.
The sciences aren’t a monolithic entity – each area or field (e.g. quantum physics, classical physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology) can have their own theories and principles necessary for explanatory purposes, but it’s all science. So art, beauty, etc. can be studied scientifically too – we can have multiple different levels of explanations and, for instance, it’s equally valid to say that we care for our offspring because we love them (a proximate mechanism), as well as because they carry copies of half of our own DNA (a functional reductionism or ultimate explanation). There are reductionist functional reasons for caring for our offspring and how it evolved and survives as an instinct, but these calculated reasons aren’t (typically) in the minds of parents who care for their children!
Emotions evolved to urge us to do some things and avoid other things even though we might not ultimately consciously understand why – meaning that they can sometimes over-fire and create by-product effects (e.g. humans may end up housing, feeding and cleaning up after cute-looking pets too – meow), yet these ‘misplaced’ emotions and feelings cannot be ignored or denied.
‘Thin descriptions’ are physical/mechanical explanations for events, and ‘thick descriptions’ are human interpretations/meanings for events. Each deals with a different level of description and can compliment each other. There are relatively ‘low level’ and ‘high level’ sciences (physics to biology, where all biology is physical but not all that is physical is biology, and so on, all the way up to the psychological and socio-cultural sciences). And to understand something more fundamentally, we typically go down to another level (e.g. from psychology to neuroscience) to study the mechanisms behind phenomena. Some will call this reductionist, but so be it. At times we can also go up to a higher level to consider the human-world implications of something that’s fundamental too.
Reductionism can help us to understand many phenomena, but it does become too restrictive if a reductionist view is considered eliminative i.e. believing that other, higher, levels of understanding something become invalid just because there’s a lower level of understanding that same thing.
Whatever the case, the scientific method is the best known tool for investigating and understanding life, this world and the universe.
However, do please use the Twitter comment button below to tell us whether you personally think that applying the scientific method to everything overall enriches or cheapens life?