The Method Called Science
Posted by Anthony Mannucci
Science is conducted using the scientific method. Does the scientific method teach us about the nature of reality? Is the scientific method taking over our lives and leading us astray?
In modern times, for many people their mantra is: “if I can’t verify it, I won’t believe it.” This mantra has come from belief in the scientific method. The scientific method is based on obtaining experimental evidence for one’s hypothesis or “guess” about a natural phenomenon. Absent this evidence, a scientist will not believe the hypothesis. Is the scientific method being applied too broadly in people’s lives?
Let’s work through a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. I see a bright shimmering light in the sky, and I wish to learn more about it. As a scientist, I build an instrument, launch it on a rocket, and send it into the light. The instruments on the rocket collect data, and the radio on the rocket sends the data back to me, providing lots of details about this beautiful light. I begin to form a hypothesis about what causes the light. I plan a new rocket launch with new experiments to test my hypothesis.
However, I notice there are gaps in the data. I come to realize that about half the light I am seeing is emanating from the places where there are data gaps. I am not sure why the gaps are there. I try to fix the problem by building and trying new equipment that is stronger and more robust. However, try as I might, after several more launches, the data gaps remain and I can never obtain data from these mysterious gap regions. Yet, much of what I see emanates from there.
It’s clear that because of the data gaps, I will never fully understand or describe what causes the beautiful light I am seeing. What am I to do?
My faith in the natural world tells me there is some natural explanation for the light, but I cannot figure out what it is. I can come up with many guesses, but I cannot obtain evidence to confirm those guesses. The scientific method can only take me so far but no farther. I am left with gaps in understanding what is happening to produce those lights.
This concrete example demonstrates that, as a method, science is limited in what it can reveal about “fundamental reality”. Thinking more broadly, we can understand that this particular example reveals a deeper truth. Science is not about discovering “fundamental reality”. It is about reasoning from the evidence we can obtain. When evidence is not available, science does not help us.
There are many important parts of your life for which science cannot provide evidence. The question you must answer is: do you care about these parts of your life? As a scientist, you wanted to know more about the light in the sky and understanding that light, yet the scientific method did not provide the understanding you needed. Do you ignore the phenomenon, or do you still care about it?
Science is a method that tells us certain things, but not other things. Can you really ignore all the things for which science cannot provide the answer?