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