Scientific Method – How Knowledge is Made

Throughout the history of scientific develop there have been many a view and reflection on the scientific method and overall nature of science; these reflections and views have been the topic of much philosophical debate. These debates can lead to issues in determining the “apparent” rationality of the scientific method and nature of science (University of Queensland, 2019).

Whilst it is commonly understood that science is a way of critically thinking about and analysing the empirical world around us; it is often unclear what the right “method” for undertaking such thinking and analysis and this then lack of clarity then leads to a further question; how does this produce scientific knowledge? (University of Queensland, 2019). There are two main ways that science is commonly deduced, and these are through inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning (also referred to as falsification). In this essay I will be reflecting upon these two models for scientific reasoning and by reflecting I will express my views on which is a more effective method for contemporary science; however, let me first briefly introduce inductivism and falsification.

Inductive reasoning is where scientific laws, explanations or theories are inferred from broad generalisations based on finite numbers of particular observations of naturally occurring phenomena (Bradford, 2017). The main underlying principle of inductive reasoning is that what occurs frequently does not occur by chance (University of Queensland, 2019). Falsification or deductive reasoning on the other hand is the opposite to induction; deduction goes from the general hypothesis and analyses possibilities to deduce a particular law.

Alan Chalmers effectively describes the common and inductivist view of science in his 1976 publication ‘What Is This Thing Called Science?’. Chalmers writes “Scientific knowledge is proven knowledge. Scientific theories are derived in some rigorous way from the facts of experience acquired by observation and experiment. Science is based on what we can see and hear and touch, etc. Personal opinion or preferences and speculative imaginings have no place in science. Science is objective. Scientific knowledge is reliable knowledge because it is objectively proven knowledge.”

A follower of deductive reasoning, such as Karl Popper, would find this “common view of science” to be riddled with ‘false’ exclamations. Deductive followers would look at the statement made Chalmers and find three problems: 1. The idea that science is proven knowledge, 2. The representation that science is objective with zero margin for speculation and finally, 3. The overall problem with inductive reasoning as a proof is hard to justify. Let me explain these problems in greater detail.

Firstly, a deductive reasoner would find limited truth in the statement that science is “proven knowledge” since you cannot truly infer knowledge gained from finite numbers of observed instances is true in all cases. Inductive inference tells us that under “certain” conditions it seems reasonable to generalise “an appropriate universal statement” (University of Queensland, 2019). However, this is not truly justifiable as knowledge gained in science is based on testing and observations under certain circumstances and based on inductive inference, we make a broad claim, an inductive leap, from particular observations to a generalised law. This inductive leap relinquishes certainty and hence highlights the fact science is not proven knowledge but generalisations of the observed.

Secondly, the ideology that science is purely objective with no place for “personal opinion or preferences and speculative imaginings” (Chalmer, 1976) can also be seen as a misguided representation. Scientific hypotheses are formed on the basis of an individual’s creative and inventive theories; hence, meaning by nature they are formed from “personal opinion” and “speculative imaginings”. Without these “speculative imaginings” we wouldn’t have witnessed some of the scientific discoveries we have today, such as black holes. Therefore, it can be established that science is actually infused with subjectivity.

Finally, the last flaw within Chalmers’ account is the problem of induction; the problem of induction refers to the struggle that is associated with trying to classify the justification for the principle of induction. There is an inability to classify the scientific knowledge gained from inductive methods into a priori (mathematically or logically) or a posteriori (experimentally) justification. Induction seems impossible to justify into either category and hence there is a problem with justifying the inductive account of science (University of Queensland, 2019).

In response to these three problems with the common view of science Karl Popper developed his own deductive framework for science, the Hypothetico-Deductivist Account of Science better known as falsification. Popper’s model for science completely withdraws the need for induction; this allows us “to explain how science works and why it is rational” (University of Queensland, 2019). Popperian Hypothetico-deduction has become the “widely accepted” model for science and scientific methods as it resolves the issues seen within Alan Chalmers view.

Personally, I find Popper’s falsification account of science to be a much better model for deducing scientific knowledge; I believe that falsification is convincingly more rational than induction. However, due to the complexity surrounding the nature of science, similarly to inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning contains some obvious flaws. Much like the common view of science Falsification has three main problems and these problems are: a failure to falsify a hypothesis doesn’t make it true; falsification relies upon a large amount of assumptions about auxiliary hypothesis; and it can also lead to paradigm shifts. Due to space limitations I will only briefly describe flaw regarding failure to falsify. This is a big issue in Popper’s account; based on falsification in order to be scientific the hypothesis must be falsifiable, so this poses the big question, “why should the mere fact that a hypothesis has not been disproven by the results give reason for believing/trusting it?” (University of Queensland, 2019). However, unlike Alan Chalmers account, Popper’s Hypothetico – deductive account does not claim to be “proven knowledge” which alludes to the fact that Popper was aware of uncertainty.

In conclusion, it can clearly be seen that Popper’s Hypothetico-Deductivist Account of Science is far better than Chalmers’ inductive interpretation for deducing scientific knowledge. The claims presented in Alan Chalmers’ ‘Common view of Science’ are out dated and aren’t really suited to contemporary science, the 3 key problems outlined above clearly highlight this fact. In modern science it is widely accepted that Popper’s view is the most effective for science as it disregards induction; we can use falsification to “explain how science works and why it rational without having to rely on anything as suspect as induction” (University of Queensland, 2019).

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