Let's Stop Bashing the Common Sense of Science! No, Really.

How Should Science be Done?
Stephan Guyenet

Lately I keep running into the idea that the proper way to do science is to continually strive to disprove a hypothesis, rather than support it*. According to these writers, this is what scientists are supposed to aspire to, but I've never actually heard a scientist say this. The latest example was recently published in the Wall Street Journal (1). This evokes an image of the Super Scientist, one who is so skeptical that he never believes his own ideas and is constantly trying to tear them down. I'm no philosopher of science, but this idea never sat well with me, and it's contrary to how science is practiced. Descending from the writings of Karl Popper, apparently the idea has been strongly criticized by a number of other philosophers of science.

I'd go further and say that the idea is commonly abused by non-scientist contrarians who need an excuse to wholesale reject a body of scientific evidence that is inconvenient for them (along with Thomas Kuhn's writing on paradigms). It's also abused by writers who want to make a dramatic story by creating a sense of outrage or superiority in the reader (i.e., "these people are supposed to be scientists, but they can't even get the scientific method right!").

I could spend my entire career trying to disprove Pasteur's germ theory, and it would be a waste of time. I could spend my career trying to disprove the idea that DNA contains genetic material, and I would also be wasting my time. Why did we ever move on from testing these hypotheses? Because the evidence supporting them is overwhelming. At some level of evidence, one has to conclude that a hypothesis is sufficiently supported, stop testing it, and move on.

The scientific method is just a formalized version of common sense. If you were to try to eat five rocks, and break your teeth each time, you'd conclude that rocks aren't good food and stop trying to eat them. You wouldn't conclude that you failed to disprove the idea that rocks aren't good food, and keep trying to eat them.

More of this ...


No comments:

Post a Comment