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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Oh The Pleasures of Scientific Method

There is a theory that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened. – Douglas Adams

Scientific method allows us to do stuff. Even if we cannot know anything for certain, because we’re too small to see eternity’s patterns yet too large to see into the heart of matter, we can at least experiment and find out ways to make things work. Religious and political dogmas offer to tell us why things are as they are, but their claims cannot be tested by repeat experiment. Science is more humble – it cannot tell us why we are here or what we should do, but it can tell us how things come to be, and how we can change them.

Three hundred years ago, the scientific community generally believed they gained knowledge via induction: they would observe that things fall to the ground, and induce the theory that gravity will always make things fall. But David Hume realised this way of thinking if flawed. If a chicken always receives food from the farmer, it could induce the theory that farmer approaching always = food. Then one day the farmer comes to break the chicken’s neck and fry it up. How then, do we make sure our inductions are correct?

Early in the twentieth century, Karl Popper described a solution: we arrive at theories by inducting generalisations out of experience, but we then must attempt to prove those generalisations wrong. We alter every variable in turn to try to disprove our hypothesis; if we cannot disprove it, we accept it as current best theory. Popper reasoned that although we can’t prove a generalisation will always come true, we can easily prove a generalisation false by providing even a single counterexample.

Unfortunately, Pierre Duhem has showed that we cannot be entirely certain that we have falsified a hypothesis. If we have a counterexample suggesting a hypothesis is wrong, it may simply be that the instruments used to test the hypothesis may be faulty. We can of course test these instruments – but we must also test the instruments used to test the instruments, and so on. However, if we repeat our tests over and over again with different instruments, we can hope to attain some degree of certainty – uncertainty must always remain in our minds, but we shouldn’t let it stop us from making cool shit, like computers and lysergic acid diethylamide.

So what?

So why have I once again filled Salient’s editorial page with a bunch of words I’ve regurgitated from undergrad philosophy lectures? Because scientific method underpins everything we use in postindustrial life, and if we don’t respect it we’ll slip into idiocracy, and waste half of our nation’s tax budget invading another nation because God told us to. Fuck that.

Of course, following the scientific method isn’t always easy. I try to be a scientific historian, but I have no laboratory in which to test my hypotheses. I cannot adjust the amount of bread available in France in 1789 to see if this affects the course of the Revolution. However, I can compare this revolution with others to look at how the varying importance of some factors (food supply, religion, syphilis) affects the events to follow.

Unfortunately, history’s relationships of cause and effect are fractured and chaotic, made up on moments and emotions hidden from the annals of record. And like the kingdom lost for the want of a nail, massive historical turning points can be spurred on by the minutae of love affairs. Simon Schama argues that while taxation and food and other ‘big’ underlying trends contributed to the Protestant Reformation, we cannot understand Henry VIII’s decision to turn his back on the Catholic Church without understanding his lust for Anne Boleyn. Romance really can bring an empire to its knees.

To understand complex, emotional human lives into a scientific account of history, we have to make sure our explanations are not too tight. Unlike hard-core Marxist historians who insist that economics is the root of everything, we have to keep our systems flexible enough to acknowledge seduction alongside grain distribution as a significant historical agent. The CIA failed to realise this in the Eighties, when they knew the number of inches the wheat in Ukraine had grown, but didn’t know that people were about to riot in Moscow.

At the end of the day, we cannot run an effective society without paying heed to scientific discoveries. For instance, the psychologist John Bowlby has shown that infants who are not able to form a strong bond with an adult in their first two years of life, they will almost invariably never grow into happy and competent adults. This research tells us that intervention to ensure all infants receive affection is vital to a peaceful world. Science works, bitches, and you ignore it at your peril.

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (6)

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  1. Kerry says:

    I promise, next time I won’t leave until I’ve super-subbed every last scrap!

    Hey, at least it was about science, not politics or law or media, where they get bitchy… science fac are so thrilled to be getting some headway on the building they were promised in ?1982 or so, that they’re all pretty mellow right now!

  2. speaking of chickens says:

    chickens don’t make theories

  3. Alan Shore says:

    “Dog does not play dice with the universe.”
    – Elbert Ainstein.

  4. Dave Wilson says:

    Hey man, I spotted a typo.

    tut tut tut.

    Our mother will be angry, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to chop her into bits.

  5. Mother says:

    I spotted two typos. ‘Pierre Duhem’ + ‘minutiae’.

    Your blades just aren’t sharp enough for Mother.

  6. Yeah, this thing had about half a dozenfucking typos in it. Must go flagellate myself.

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