A few years ago, when my daughter was in middle school, she had to study for a quiz on “the five steps of the scientific method.” She had no problem memorizing five words in a given order, but she also had to be ready to explain them, and there she ran into trouble, until she was seized by a bright idea: here was a chance for her mother, who taught and wrote about the history of science, to make herself useful. “I guess it makes sense for it to be observation, hypothesis, prediction, experiment, confirmation,” she said to me, “but why couldn’t it be hypothesis, observation, prediction, experiment, confirmation? Or prediction, observation, confirmation, hypothesis, experiment? Or…”
“Exactly,” I interrupted, before she could offer me all 120 permutations of the five words. Then, rather than solving her problem, I made it worse. (What are mothers for?) “They could really go in any order. Actually, I think they’re likelier to occur simultaneously. Also, they could include plenty of other parts, like comparison, formalization, analogy, interpretation, visualization…” She gave me her “parents are charming but of scant utility” look and turned back to her notes. If only I could have referred her to Henry M. Cowles’s The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey. Cowles’s book doesn’t solve her problem either, but makes it into a much bigger and more interesting phenomenon. (What are books for?)
What is the scientific method, and when, where, and how did it become, as the kids say, a thing? Authoritative definitions of “the scientific method” often state that it consists of a set of procedures including observation, experimentation, and the formation and testing of hypotheses by inductive and deductive reasoning. Such accounts, as a rule, ascribe science’s successes to the application of these procedures ever since the seventeenth century and the work of people such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. But neither Bacon nor Newton nor anyone else in the seventeenth century would have recognized the phrase; moreover, neither would have agreed with current standard definitions. Bacon, for instance, rejected deductive reasoning as the bad old Aristotelian approach, and Newton, author of one of the boldest hypotheses in the history of science—the universal aether—denied any role for hypotheses in his science, famously declaring “hypotheses non fingo” (I frame no hypotheses).
Cowles traces the scientific method to a later period than the Scientific Revolution—the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This makes sense, since it coincides with a tectonic shift in intellectual geography: the splitting of the sciences and the humanities into two diverging continents. To prove its…
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