The Scientific Method

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine (whom I shall call KS) which touched upon various diverse topics, including but not limited to the origins of homosexuality and the concept of alpha males. While a lot of what she said made sense, one thing I could not reconcile myself with was her casual dismissal of the scientific method as too demanding for certain domains (including sociology). Obviously, none of what follows is a personal attack.

From whatever little I know about the scientific method, the little it seems to demand is rigour. If a theory lacks the rigour and detail required to make it scientific, it was never a theory in the first place; I cannot explain foo by explaining how it is caused by bar and then leave bar open to subjective interpretation – the very power of scientific reasoning is its extreme objectivity. Science may be cold, but it is impartial. The only assumption the scientific method makes is our inherent ability to be logically consistent. While this may still be false, its falsehood will force us to mark all of (wo)mankind’s discussions as incoherent nonsense.

Part of the argument KS made was rooted on the fact that the same approach one uses to reason about physical objects does not translate well over to reasoning about human society. I tend to attribute such a world-view to human-snobbishness – there is absolutely no reason why the approach which yields theories about stars and atoms is somehow not applicable to the domain of human sociology. There is nothing special about us; the difference between a living human being and a stone is only complexity (another point where KS disagrees with me).

It may be, at times, helpful to reason about things in a more abstract manner than directly in terms of recursive sub-systems – a biologist does not talk about the interactions between individual atoms while explaining the functioning of a cell, for instance. This does not mean, however, that such interactions cease to exist; the overall functioning of a cell is the sum total of the interactions of the individual molecules and it, ultimately, is governed by simple, basic laws. It is our intellect (or lack thereof) which is at question, and not the Laws of Physics.

The way people tend to demonstrate our special place amongst material objects is by asserting the existence of the rather bogus concept of conciousness and the existence of our useless (other than in day-to-day life) intuition. While this pejorative view may sound a little harsh, the fact remains that our conciousness is only an evolved construct and using intuition to reason about physical reality is a bad joke. We evolved our sense of being and intuition simply because the ones who did survived and procreated. This means that it stems from (like pretty much everything else) our love of food and orgasms and the ability to reach an ESS.

Our intuitive sense has little to do with reality and our consciousness (including our sense of moral code and our concept of society) is a manifestation of a more complicated ESS (compared to the simpler organisms like spiders and bees) at best. With events like September 11th, it is tempting to conclude that our (so called) ESS is actually less robust than that of such simpler organisms and our larger brain a wrong decision in the long term. Evolution is a greedy algorithm; it makes locally optimal choices, guaranteeing nothing in the long term. Our rationale, our intuition and our conciousness are good only to judge about rather small issues like figuring out the shortest way to the mall and the suitability of a mating partner and attempting to reason anything beyond that may (and, in general, will) fail our senses. Examples include things like General Relativity (there exist four dimensions, really), Quantum Mechanics (is that dog really there?) and even some formal mathematical reasoning (The Banach Tarski Paradox would be an example).

One (and, as of now, the only way) to overcome our lack of the ability to see things as they really are is to completely objectify the way we gather knowledge, which is exactly what science does. Science goes beyond what would constitute as humane behavior by de-personifying knowledge (who does not matter, what does) and pays back with accuracy. Science is not fool-proof, it has made tons of mistakes in the past and will continue to do so, but only because it will be a long long time before we master the art of perfect observation. Science explains what we observe, since it is the only part of the universe we can reason about. In a way, religion can be called the science of the past – only relatively recent observations we’ve made cracked it.

Frankly, very little of the above rambling was directly relevant to discussion I had with KS. The whole essence of the argument was rooted in my using evolution (and related mechanisms) to explain human social behaviour and her refusal to accept such a straightforward analysis. My thoughts stem from my extreme cynical view of human behavior (we are apes, at the end of the day) and her view stems from some knowledge of human sociology (about which I know nothing), leading to the conclusion that I’m probably the one who’s wrong. I don’t think it matters … we’ll all be ruled by robots in the future anyway.

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2 Responses to The Scientific Method

  1. Ha! ๐Ÿ™‚ It was a very interesting discussion indeed. I shall not reiterate all the points on which we disagree, mainly the attribution of rigour to scientific methodology alone and the reductionism thereof.

    think the basic problem I have is with the assertion that science is objective. The aim of science is certainly neutrality and objectivity but this is confusing the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’. Thanks to human intervention in the practice and theorisation of science, it is not objective, divesting it of the rigour it professes to epitomise. The rest of your argument, very articulate and intelligent in its own way, is the classic tautology of the corrosive scientism in social theory. You’re using a construct to explain another. And then using it to explain itself. This is the ‘reductionism’ we decry in social theory. Yes, biological evolution (understood with its flaws and loopholes) explains a part of our functioning. But to arrogantly twist the development of human complexity and sociocultural products and infer post hoc results based on scientific findings is a pitfall science keeps tumbling into time and again.

    Social Darwinism is stack-heeled concept that has given rise to absurd justifications for everything from capitalist economics to Skinnerian behaviourism (one embedded in ‘survival of the fittest’ and the other in solely externalist considerations of human conduct).

    Yes, science strives to be value-free (and fails as often as not) but the laboratory does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in civilisation, which is value-laden. And those values influence the lab. Furthermore, science in itself is a cultural creation, which sometimes very admirably attempts to meta-analyse the society that spawn(ed/s) it, often with results that are comparable to a Mobius strip. I am definitely not against the scientific method but I cannot emphasise enough the importance of unpacking its central notions and questioning them, in its own spirit of inquiry, instead of deifying it and treating it as another kind of God or rule unto itself.

    I have a problem with reductionism precisely because it is not a ‘value’ (something science claims not to have) social theorists find desirable in the study of humankind,for many reasons I will be happy to go into at length elsewhere.I am a proponent of science as much as the next person, all I ask is that it lean back and introspect.

  2. PS. I’d just like to clarify that ‘demanding’ is not the problem I have with science…indeed, the fact that it is considered so to the exclusion of all other critical theory is my truck with this line of thought!

    And also, thank you for the thought you have put into our discussion and your reading. It is nice to be able to trade arguments and come to conclusions together rather than rusting in the intellectual bubbles of one’s own disciplines. ๐Ÿ™‚

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