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Scientific Method: Flawed?


The Power of Science The scientific method, relying on induction, offers the best means for explaining our natural world. Why does science produce facts about the world? What’s special about the scientific method? Sure, scientific facts are generally approximations to the truth, and we don’t have complete knowledge of nature, but science has an astonishingly impressive track record nonetheless. How does the scientific method produce approximately true knowledge of the world around us? The self-correcting nature of the scientific method plays a role, as does the overwhelming value it places on empirical data. But these both spring from a deeper and more important truth about the scientific method: it relies on inductive reasoning applied to the world around us. Inductive reasoning is the idea that the more often something has happened before, the more likely it is to happen again. So, for example, we all think it’s extremely likely that the sun will rise tomorrow, since it rose yesterday, and the day before, and throughout all of history. Similarly, every time you’ve been hungry and you’ve eaten, you’ve felt less hungry, so eating will probably make you less hungry in the future as well. Ultimately, this is how we know everything that we know about the world, and we use inductive reasoning so often that we hardly ever think about it. It doesn’t have to work, though: just because something happened before doesn’t mean that it’ll happen again the same way, nor that it’s more likely to happen again at all. After all, as every investment banker knows, past performance does not guarantee future results, and statisticians have been dolefully chanting “correlation is not causation” for centuries now. Yet we do use induction quite frequently and very successfully. The scientific method rests on an untestable belief: applying inductive reasoning to our perceptions can actually give us knowledge about the world. We shouldn’t hold that against science, though. It’s a basic fact of logic that you can’t draw any sort of conclusions without taking some statements for granted; logicians and mathematicians call these unproven statements axioms, and you always need a few of them, even for basic stuff like addition and multiplication. Of course, the fact that all systems of belief have fundamentally untestable statements at their core must mean that they’re all equally arbitrary and none of them should be taken as a more legitimate way of looking at the world than any of the others, right? Well, not quite. There’s a way out of this: not all axioms are created equal. We may have to pick some axioms without logical justification if we want to get somewhere, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no way at all to pick out our axioms. There’s that great untestable belief up there, that belief in the power of induction to tell us about the world. As untestable beliefs go, it’s the best one available. Forget science for a moment

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here — that claim is the weakest one you can make that will still allow you to stumble through this world with some hope of understanding what’s going on. To see what I mean, try to imagine not believing that perceptions and inductive reasoning can tell you about the nature of reality. How does your day look? You wake up, and you go to the kitchen and pour out some cereal into a bowl. Except that you’re not sure that the bowl will hold your cereal — sure, it seemed like it did yesterday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Hell, you don’t even know that your cereal is in the box at all. For that matter, how do you know that the floor will support your weight? Or that there is a floor? In fact, you aren’t even sure that eating the cereal will make you less hungry… Still not convinced? Think I’m being silly by making judgments about statements that are untestable in principle? Fine. Have a look at this pair of untestable statements:

Statement A:

Applying inductive reasoning to our perceptions gives us pretty good information about the world around us.

Statement B:

There is a unicorn in my basement that hangs out there, but only when nobody is looking, and it never leaves any evidence that it’s been there. If you don’t think that it’s possible to make judgments on the relative merits of untestable statements, then you have to say that Statement B is just as good as Statement A — and that’s just strange. It certainly seems like Statement A is much more plausible than Statement B, even though neither one can ever really be “tested.” So science is based upon an untestable belief, just like everything else! But it’s got the best untestable belief — one that you already believe, and that you could hardly afford not to believe. And that’s really the only core belief that we need in order to start doing science, whereas other systems of belief seem to require a lot of bells and whistles in addition to a belief in the power of induction. The scientific method, in short, is special because it is based on a lack of faith relative to other systems of belief: we take as little on faith as we reasonably can when we do science. The author is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the Physics Department at the University of Michigan. His blog is online at


Our Minds Fall Short The scientific method and induction have distinct limits; we can never fully explain our natural world. The scientific method is a human-made miracle. It has maxiYes, inductive reasoning (which characterizes scientific rationalmized our ability to understand the universe in such a simple ity) is an extremely powerful tool; however, it is far from perfect. way, and it is mind-boggling that it took hundreds of centuries Three types of biases show up in any research. First, scientific for humans to develop scientific methods. Any aspiring scientist researchers (or any curious being) will use whatever informadoes not pursue a field of research merely because he or she is intion is most accessible—the availability bias. Confirmation bias terested in the mechanisms of certain phenomena. As humans, arises when people seek out information that fits with prior bewe are constantly looking for an ultimate explanation, itching to liefs. Think of Robert Anton Wilson’s quote, “What the thinker answer the great “Why?” We want to find the narrative that will thinks, the prover proves.” (And see what I just did here? I found show us how the physical world works and where the universe is a quotation that confirms my own belief.) Lastly, similar to the heading. Developing this worldview through scientific methods confirmation bias, there is the predictable-world bias: individuis limited. als seek to find order and patterns in phenomena, even if there To explicate this, it’s critical to understand the limits of the are none. human mind. Neuroscience is useful here for two reasons: (1) it Induction also troubled philosopher David Hume. He argives us the grounds to understand what in the universe we can gued that it is impossible to be certain that assumptions we base perceive and, consequently, understand, and (2) it approaches on previous experiences will ever hold true in the future. Furthe subject of consciousness-an area the scientific method canthermore, our only basis for justifying inductive reasoning is innot grasp. ductive reasoning itself, a disturbing regression that undercuts To understand our brain’s limits in understanding the unithe project altogether. verse, it’s helpful to consider the brain of a bat. Although we can So what is there to do when our methodology hits a brick never know “what [it is] like to be a bat” (as philosopher Thomas wall? Nagel concluded), we can certainly speculate that its conscious Consciousness—the experience and sum of mental processexperience is drastically different from ours. For starters, a bat es—is an elusive concept, lying outside the scope of the scientific has very poor eyesight. It must rely on echolocation in order method. We cannot study consciousness inside other people beto navigate its environment. From this alone we can conclude cause it is a subjective experience. There is no region in the brain a difference in our respective perceptual worlds. If a bat were that is responsible for creating the unified experience, and so far to evolve so it could design something similar to our scientific there is no explanation as to how a physical process can give rise method, it certainly could not use vision as the basis of observato the experience of a thought, emotion or sensation. This is tion (observation being the first step in the scientific method). where reconsidering the scientific method is vital. If we wish to There is an entire field of physical phenomena in the universe fully explore the basis of our reality—consciousness itself—we that lies outside the bat’s comprehension. Simply because our must be ready to employ a new, rigorous paradigm that allows hypothetical bat cannot use the scientific method to understand for the study of the subjective experience. And don’t be fooled by visual phenomena, these phenomena are not any less “real” or the scientists who have made metaphysical assumptions about less worthy of study. consciousness, be it reductionism (the mind is reducible to the Such perceptual worlds are known as umwelts. Because they physical brain) or dualism (the mind and brain exist on two difvary by species, we can conclude that there is no objective way ferent planes). Nobody knows, and our current model certainly to observe the universe. Some animals see more or fewer colors; won’t answer it. others can smell from impressive distances and some even detect If we want to predict the trajectory of a rocket or the behavior magnetic fields. Our brains constrain what we are able to infer of a crayfish, the scientific method is appropriate. But as our about the universe; to this end, we are very limited by our senses. understanding of the world grows, we’ll find that the current sciWe cannot go around proclaiming that the scientific method is entific method no longer fits us. We must adapt and be ready for a find-all cure-all; we have to acknowledge the bounds of the great shifts in our thinking. human umwelt. For example, dark matter - a mysterious substance that composes a majority of the universe - lies completely outside the human umwelt. As we desperately try to assert our beliefs in the world, ei- The author is a junior in LSA. He blogs at ther for some existential comfort or when scrambling to form which aims to make neuroscience a research presentation, the human mind is bound to be biased. and psychology more accessible to the public.

December 7, 2011

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OUR PUBLICATION Consider is a non-partisan, non-profit publication operated by students at the University of Michigan. Consider’s purpose is to encourage civil discourse on significant issues of campus, national, and world interest.

CONSIDERONLINE.ORG FIVE THINGS about the Scientific Method Ancient Greek Philosopher Plato did not see value in measurement or observation. He believed that solely relying on reason was the key to knowledge. Aristotle, considered a father of modern science, believed that thought and reasoning as scientific tools needed to be backed up by observations of the world. Philosopher Francis Bacon championed inductive reasoning, thinking it would ensure man’s complete understanding of the world. How Stuff Works


Newton is quoted as saying “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty, and leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things.”


A recent discovery by CERN research center found that neutrinos, a very small particle, appeared to move faster than the speed of light. This discovery challenged a Newtonian principle - that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, meaning time travel could be possible. Christian Science Monitor

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Scientific Method: Flawed?