Friday, August 12, 2011

Alternatives to the scientific method

I've been taking some time over the past two weeks having lunch with some students who were working with me for the summer. As part of this, I ask them what they thought about the experience of working with researchers and their own roles. I also discuss the project and where what they did fit into the overall goals.

One thing that surprised them all was that there was an alternative to decision-making through the use of models and analysis. And that using models and rigorous analysis was not always accepted or desired as a way of understanding our world and making decisions. Even important and complex ones.

1. Analysis by argument/logic - There is a reason that study of the natural world (what is now science) used to be called natural philosophy. This is analysis through reasoning and providing explanations for observed phenomena.

2. Perception as truth - The belief that what is perceived is what is true. This was argued by a number of friends of mine in graduate school who were members of a faith based group. It also is the justification of truth being arbitrated by those with societal power.

The contrast is the scientific method, which involves

i. Propose a hypothesis
ii. Identify a consequence from the hypothesis
iii. Develop and conduct an experiment that can test the consequence and potentially disprove the hypothesis
iv. Revise the hypothesis

Why would someone use (1) or (2) in making decisions instead of the scientific method?

a. Easier. (1) or (2) can be done much faster.
b. Lack of capability. Utilizing the scientific method required personel who are trained in developing hypothesis, identifying consequences, and designing experiments to test the hypothesis in the domain in question.
c. Power. (1) and (2) can be used by those who have built up power in a domain. Related to (a)
d. Disbelief. A large segment of society does not believe in the scientific method and prefers other sources for establishing truth.

(a) and (b) tend to be the basis of outreach by analytical groups within companies and academics. They often run into (c), which is subverted when top leadership has experience with having analytical groups assist decision makers in the past (one common example is if an executive served in the U.S. military) (d) tends to be the target of groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) or more politically oriented groups such as the Ben Franklin's List (see New York Times, August 8, 2011, Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic)

In large part those of us who are trained and teach and use the scientific method forget that there are alternatives, and people choose to follow those alternatives for reasons. I think that working with the high school students who don't worry about sounding ignorant (after all, they are going to go on with their lives, and there is never any shame for a high school student to tell a college professor in private that they don't understand something)
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