Nobody invented the scientific method.

In the past I’ve written posts explaining why the terms “father of” and “the greatest” should be firmly avoided when writing about the history of science. James Sumner has also written an excellent post The F-Word explaining why the term “the first” should also be banned from the vocabulary of any serious historian of science or technology. Today I’m going to explain why the expression “XY invented the scientific method” should also be regarded as a hanging offense!

Rather like the terms the greatest or the father of, inventor of the scientific method is an attribute that has been applied to a myriad of scholars down through the ages, Aristotle, Archimedes, Ibn al-Haytham, Galileo, Bacon (both Roger and Francis), Descartes and Newton are just some of the more prominent historical figures who invented the scientific method. Makes for kind of a crowded field doesn’t it?

The real problems start when one tries to define what exactly “The” scientific method actually is. In reality there isn’t any such animal. There are a related family of methods and practices that have been used over the centuries to produce, test and question scientific hypotheses and theories, not one single golden method.

The next problem is that these methods and practices are not exclusive or restricted to science but are procedures that are used in problem solving in almost all areas of human activity. However if I just refer to them as methods of problem solving it doesn’t seem so impressive and at the same time it robs science of its claim to being special.

All these methods consist of is the application of logical reasoning about a problem to form a hypothetical solution, the testing of that hypothetical solution and the repeated application of logical reasoning to analyse the results of those tests. It is literally impossible to judge when humanoids first started using this approach to solve problems.

Even if we restrict ourselves to the areas of human activity subsumed under the concepts of science and technology we will never be able to find “the inventor”. Every early potter used this methodology to find better clays for his pots, better methods of firing his kilns, better materials and methods for glazing, which one of them could be said to have invented the scientific method? The same applies to brick makers, tanners, dyers, metal smelters, metal workers, the makers of flint tools and a dozen other groups of hand workers and craftsmen.

As it says in the title nobody invented the scientific method, so would all historians and philosophers of science and especially those who think they are but are not really please stop using this meaningless string of words.

Addendum: Somebody who thinks the same way I do: Great post by Neuroskeptic


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

18 responses to “Nobody invented the scientific method.

  1. Pingback: Nobody invented the scientific method | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Oh, so it wasn’t Karl Popper either then, I guess.

  3. “the application of logical reasoning about a problem to form a hypothetical solution, the testing of that hypothetical solution and the repeated application of logical reasoning to analyse the results of those tests.”

    I would argue it’s “creative use of the imagination” rather than “logical reasoning” about a problem that leads to a hypothesis that can solve it, but apart from that, you’ve just described the scientific method. The thing you said didn’t exist?

    • …creative use of the imagination…

      Very Popperian! As is your strident insistence on a demarcation criteria in you discussion on twitter. Because of that discussion which covers your answers to what I’ll say here I shall be brief.

      Either sloppily or deliberately you attribute a claim to me that I don’t make. I do not say that the scientific method does not exist. I say that there is not one single scientific method but several or even many. I also says that theses methods are not exclusive to science but are general methods for solving problems.

      I realise that you are now going to claim that there has to be a demarcation criteria to distinguish science from pseudo-science and that is “THE” scientific method but as far as I’m concerned that is wishful thinking on your part and not a description of reality.

  4. Daniella

    I don’t think I’ve heard any historian of science or technology say that there is an inventor of the scientific method. In fact, everyone I know knows full well that the method is fuzzy to say the least. Could you clarify?

    • Daniella I’m not going to give a long list of all the occurrences of such claims that have crossed my path in all of the HPS literature I have read so you will have to be content with just a couple of examples.

      If you read the previous post you will find that Jim al-Khalili claims that Ibn al-Haytham invented the scientific method. The wording in the text is slightly different but if you view the linked video he makes the direct claim towards the end also explicitly saying that this is usually attributed to Bacon and Descartes.

      In his new Galileo biography, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies David Wootton argues quite extensively as to why Galileo should be recognised as the inventor of the scientific method although he acknowledges that it was being used before Galileo. (A change of emphasis in answer to the obvious question)

      In the father of post linked above I complain about Lisa Jardine calling Bacon the father of modern science. What she is referencing is Baconian method i.e. “the scientific method”.

      If you trawl through the HPS literature I can assure you that you will find plenty of other examples.

  5. Jeb

    I would have thought that historians or philosophers engaging in writing a foundation legend and using a form of folk narrative should be pulled up sharply.

    However I seriously dislike when Historians start to describe folklore as meaningless, its seriously ignorant and patronizing though its a rather standard Historians response.

    I take it the last sentence refers to people you like who use the term and more popular writers you don\’t who also use the same term some pro historians do. Although its rather difficult to tell other than one group is held to a different set of standards and I presume its the one you identify with.

    I think you are a wonderful writer of history Thony and I have learned loads from reading you\’re blog.

    Stick to doing reading offline in paper form in future and online for archives etc. too much distraction on science related sites related to social/ group dynamics and identity building.

    Although I am sure you are giving a very small group of people a very warm glow reading it.

  6. Great points. I like that it takes the sacredness out of science. I put together a poor attempt to illustrate “The Great Man Theory of History” criticism here which hacks at the notion of singular causality from a different angle.

    In medicine I am amazed at how we watch methods change as reasoning is applied to established research methods which then, though once considered orthodox methodology, are challenged by reason — a greater too than ‘scientific method’, if you will.

    Loved your points here. Thanx.

  7. I remember a talk, many years ago, where the speaker (the chair of the Chem department where I was employed at that time), said that a scientist is a person who has never outgrown his childhood curiosity. That seemed about right to me.

    I agree that there really isn’t anything that can be clearly stated as “the scientific method.”

    I have another suspicion, namely that most scientific advances are collaborative efforts that involve a fertile exchange of ideas between a number of people, though history might assign the credit to only one person.

  8. Pingback: Nobody invented the scientific method. | The Renaissance ... | Eldritch Weird Science |

  9. First, I ought to say that I came to your blog about a year ago, as I am researching a Victorian scientist from the vantage point of narrative – so I am not sure how qualified I am to comment.
    As a bit of an aside, I was taught that such myth-making emerged through Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists. That said, it would be interesting to look at different forms of the panegyric through time.
    But I have noticed that this myth of “someone” inventing the scientific method was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries: did Whewell, Babbage, and Herschel not found their own scientific movement based on Bacon’s scientific principles, above all else? (I ask, because this is not the central area of my research.) A little later, we have Michael Pupin’s book “The New Reformation” which attributes scientific advances to specific scientists, though his narrative emerged through his wish to interest lay people in science through the “human interest” factor.
    P.S. While I shall link to my blog, please know that it is currently undergoing a change in direction. This is partly because I hope, one day, to offer a suitable place to host Giants’ Shoulders.

  10. Great post. Off the topic of the scientific method, I’d have one concernign the historical, if there is any.

    You’re so good at castigating Whiggishness, I’d aprpeciate if you could (or maybe you already did somewhere) once in a while explain the difference between Whig-hitory and something that seems to be an established method of history/philosphy of science to me (I have come accross it rather regularly in publications concerned with history/philosophy of science and , hence, assume it’s an established method).

    One puts up a contrast, say, monism vs. pluralism (could also be three or four -isms) and then looks at the historical records through this lens and interpretes them accordingly. Why is this not Whiggish?

  11. Pingback: History of science: a few links for your consideration | Revolutions

  12. Pingback: If not Whig history what then? | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  13. Dudeman

    i thought it was Francis Bacon..

  14. Pingback: Getting Kepler wrong | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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