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Number 2 FLESCH - The more or less scientific method...

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Unformatted text preview: The more or less scientific method* Rudolf . Hesch Despite numerous attempts to reduce the scientific method to a few basic steps and to set forth as completely as possible the rules of pro- cedure that govern their application, the troublesome foot remains that success in science, as in other areas of human endeavor, is often the result of creotivity’ or of simply being in the right place at the right time. How, then, do we go about selecting and training good scientists. and which orientation or set of procedures is most desirable for an aspiring scientist to follow Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of science occurred in the third century n.c. in Syracuse, Sicily. The mathematician Archimedes was taking a bath. His mind was busy with a scientific problem. King Hiero of Syracuse had ordered a. golden crown and suspected the goldmtith of having cheated him by using some silver instead of the gold he’d been supplied with. The king had asked Archimedes to prove it. Suddenly Archimedes noticed that his body caused some water to spill over. In a flash he realized the solution of the problem: he’d take the crown’s weight in pure gold, dip it into water, and see whether the overflow was the same as that of the crown. Whereupon he jumped out of the tub, ran home naked as he was, and shouted to everyone he met: “Eureka! Eureka! . . . I’ve found it! I‘ve found it!” Perhaps the feast famous incident in the history of science occurred in the twentieth century run. in the United States. The chemist J. E. Teeple was ,_ {cund the solution to his problem. The first of these incidents has been retold a. million times; the second is 'From The Art of Clear Thinking by Rudolf Flesch. Copyright 1951 by Rudolf Flesch. .Reprinted by permission of Harper 3; Row, Publishers. ' 4 The science of psychology trivial. Nevertheless, the second is the one that gives the inter picture of the scientific method. In the first place, the story about Archimedes puts the spotlight on the happy discovery, giving the impression that this sort of thing is typical of a scientist’s life. Actually, “Eureka!" moments are few and far between. Jilin- stein once said, “I think and think, for months, for years; ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The" hundredth time I am right.” And that’s Einstein, the greatest scientific genius of our time. I leave it to you to estimate the percentage of correct solutions in an ordinary scientist’s world. Most oftheir lives are spent like Mr. Teeple's half-hour in the bathroom, thinking and thinking and getting nowhere. But there's a more important reason why Archimedes crying “Eureka!” isn’t a good picture of a scientist. Today no scientist, dressed or undressed, would dream of telling people “I’ve found it!” as soon as he has hit upon a bright idea. Even less would he do the modem equivalent—announce his discovery immediately to the press. Just the contrary. He would take care not to breathe a word about it to anyone, but quietly go to his laboratory and run some tests—and more tests—and more tests. A scientist today dom’t consider a bright idea as a revelation of the truth; he considers it as something to be disproved. Not just proved, mind you; it’s his obligation as a scientist to think of every conceivable means and ways to disprove it. This habit is so ingrained in him that he doesn‘t even realize it any more; he automatically thinks of a. theory as something to find flaws in. So he does experiments and hunts for every error he can possibly think of; and when he is through with his own experiments, he publishes his findings not in a newspaper but in a scientific journal, inviting other scientists to do some other experiments and prove him wrong. And when the hunt for errors has subsided and a theory gets established and accepted—do scientists think they’ve got hold of a new truth? No. To them, all scientific findings are only tentative truths, “good until further notice,” to be immediately discarded when someone comes along with another theory that explains a few more facts. Absolute truth deesn’t even interest them; they get along very happily, thank you, with a set of working hypoth- eses that are good only at certain times and for certain purposes. The most famous example of this today is the theory of light. There is a wave theory that fits certain investigations, and a particle theory that fits certain others. Years ago physicists stopped trying to find out which is true and which is falsefThe Danish Nobel prize winner, Niels Bohr, has called this the principle of complementarity, saying that after all “waves” and “particles” are only handy metaphors in dealing with certain facts; so why not use whichever is more practical at the moment? Never mind what light is “really" ; let’s get on with the job of finding out ‘what it does. Or, as one physicist said, “Let’s use the particle theory on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and the wave theory on Tuesdays, 'I‘hutsdays, and Saturdays.” For the layman, the most important thing ahOut science is this: that it isn't a search for truth but a search for error. The scientist lives in a world where truth is unattainable, but where it's always possible to find errors in the long-settled or the obvious. You want to know whether some theory is really _ scientific? Try this simple test: if the thing 1s shot through with perhaps” and maybe’ s and hemming and hawing, it’s probably science; if it's supposed to be the final answer, it is not. So-called “scientific” books that are supposed to contain final answers are never scientific. Science' is forever self-correcting and changing; what is put forth as gospel truth cannot be scienée. But what does science mean? If someone asked you for a definition, you ’d probably be on the spot. If pressed, you might come up with something like ' the definition in Webster’s: “A branch of study . . . concerned with the obser- ' vation and classification of facts, esp. with the establishment . . . of varifiable general laws.. That’s a pretty good description of what the word means to the average person. Does it mean the same thing to scientists? It does not. Recently Presi- dent Conant of Harvard, a chemist, published his definition of science: “An interconnected series of concepts and conceptual schemes that have developed as a result of experimentation and observation.” As you see, the two defini- tions are almost exact opposites. You think science deals with facts; a scientist thinks it deals with concepts. You think science tries to establish laws; a scientist thinks it aims at more and more experiments. And what is the scientific method? Your answer is apt to be: “The classi- fication of facts." President Conant’s answer is agmndifi‘erent. Look up Scientific method in the index of his book, and you’ll find this: “Scientific method. See Alleged scientific meth .” In other words, President Conant thinks there isn’t any scientific method. That surely is extreme. Even if there is no clearly definable scientific method, there’s a way in which scientists work, and it’s certainly worth know- ing about. Let’s look at a careful description by Dr. W. I. B. Bevezidge, a British biologist: The following' is a common sequence in an investigation of a medical or biological problem. (a) The relevant literamre' 1s critically reviewed. (b) A thorough collection of field data or equivalent observational en- quiry is conducted: and is supplemented if necessary by laboratory examination of specimens. (c) The information obtained is marshalled and correlated and the prob- lem is defined and broken down into specific questions (d) Intelligent guesses are made to answer the questions, as many hypoth- eses as possible being considered. (e) Experiments are devised to test first the likeliest hypotheses bearing on the most crucial questions. The key word here' 1s guns: in (d). In the popular view the emphasis is on (b), the collection of data. But not among scientists. They like to distin- guish between “accumulators” and “guessers,” and theatre pretty much agreed that it’s the guesses that are important. In more fancy terms, you could say that the modern emphasis is on deduction rather than induction, or that the Aristotelian method is now more esteemed than the Baconian. What it coma down to is simply this: Our top scientists say we need more ideas rather than more facts; they want more Einsteins who just sit and think rather than Edisons who have a genius for tinkering in the laboratory. After all, Edison, as one of them has said, “was not a scientist and was not even interested in science.” Meanwhile, our research relies far more on accumulating than on guess- ing. General Electric, with its training courses in "Creative Engineering," is the exception; the American Cancer Society, which is openly resigned to “whittling away at this mass of mystery,” is typical of the general rule. Which is why Dr. Sinnott, director of the Shefl'ield School of Science at Yale, said recently: - _ _ “Itmtuthemefiiliyadmittedthatwehavenotpmduoedourahareofgreat new germinative ideas in recent years. In atomic research, for example, most of the fundamental theoretical progress was made either by European scientists or men who had received their training abroad. We are strong in application, in development and engineering, but much lac so in the fundamental contributions ofthetheoryonwhichalltherearehased....Weareindangero£beingover- whelmed by a mass of undigested results." And what is the method used by those hard-to-fin “guessers”? If we try to analyze it, we come right back to Duncker’s description of problem-solving, to his “solutions from below” and “solutions from above.” Scientific problems are solved either by finding a seemingly irrelevant key factor or by applying a seemingly unsuitable thought pattern. Which means that scientific discoveries aremadeinoneoftwoways: byaccidentorbyhunch. ' - Take any history of science, and yOu’ll find that it is a history of accidents and hunches. Both types of discoveries are equally fascinating. If you’re interested in accidents, for instance, scientific history looks like this: ' In 1786, Luigi Galvani noticed the accidental twitching of a frog’s leg and discovered the principle of the electric battery. In 1822, the Danish physicist Oersted, at the end of a lecture, happened to put a wire conducting an electric current near a magnet, which led to Faradafs invention of the electric dynamo. ' In 1858, a seventeen-year-old boy named William Henry Perkin, trying to make artificial quinine, cooked up a black-looking mass, which led to his discovery of aniline dye. . In 1889, Professors von Mering and Mnkowski operated on a dog. A laboratory assistant noticed that the dog’s urine attracted swarms of flies. He called this to the attention of Minltcwski, who'found that the urine contained sugar. This was the first step in the control of diabetes. . In 1895, Roentgen noticed that cathode rays penetrated black paper and discovered X-rays. In 1929, Sir Alexander Fleming noticed that a culture of bacteria had been accidentally contaminated by a' mold. He said to himself: “My, that’s a funny thing." He had discovered penicillin. Of course, all these accidents would have been meaningless if they hadn’t happened to Galvani, Perkin, Roentgen, and so on. As Pasteur has said, “Chance favors the prepared mind." What is, necessary is an accidental event plus an observer with serendipity—“the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” (Horace Walpole coined that beautiful word.) On the other hand, if you’re interested in hunches, scientific history looks like this, for example: Harvey describes his discovery of the circulation of the blood: “I frequently and seriously bethought me, and long revolved in my mind, what might be the quantity of blood which was mm, in how short a timeitspassagemightbeefi'ectedand thelilte. .. .Ibeganto'thinkwhether there might not be a motion, as it were, in a circle." James Watt invents the steam engine: _ “OnafineSabbathaftemoonItookawalk....Ihadenteredthegreen andhadpassedtheoldwashinghouse.Iwasthinkingoftheengineatthe time. I had gone as far as the herd‘s house when the idea came into my mind thatassteaniwasanelasticbodyitwmfldmshintoavacumandifacon- nection were made between the cylinder and an exhausting vessel it would _ rush into it and might then be condensed without cooling the cylinder. . . . I had not walked further than the golf house when the whole thing was arranged in my min .” Darwin writes about his‘theory of evolution: “Icanrememberthevezyspotintheroad,whilstinmycaniage, whento my joy the solution occurred to me.” Kékuletellshowhediscoveredthebenzeneiingontopofalnndonbus: “I sank into a reverie. The atoms'fiitted about before my eyes. . . . I saw how two small ones often joined into a little pair; how a larger took hold of twosmaller,andastilllaigerclaspedthreeorevenfourofthesmallones, and how all span around in a whirling round-dance. . . . The cry of the con- ductor, ‘Clapham Road,’ woke me up.” . I' Walter B. Cannon discovers the significance of bodily changes in fear and rage: ‘ ese changes—the more rapid pulse, the deeper breathing, the increase of sugar in the blood, the secretion from the adrenal glands—were very diverse and seemed unrelated. Then, one wakeful night, after a considerable collection of these changes had been disclosed, the idea flashed through my mind that they could be nicely integrated if conceived as bodily preparations for supreme effort in flight or in fighting." Does all this mean that some scientists are'good at hunches and some others blessed with serendipity? Not at all. The accidental clue needs a recep- tive mind; the hunch ha to grow from a study of facts. The good guesser works both ways, depending on what he has to go on. Here's one more exam- ple that shows a combination of both methods. It is typical of modern scien- tific research in many ways. During World War II, a team of psychologists studied the propaganda effect of orientation films. Among other things, they tried to find out whether films changed the opinions and attitudes of soldiers who saw than, and whether and how these changes lasted. They had a hunch that the effect of the films would gradually wear off and that after some time, soldiers would forget the factual details and revert to their original opinion. This idea may seem rather obvious to' you. It seemed obvious to the psychologists coo—hut, being scientists, they decided to test it anyway. So they "‘ga.vethesoldiersatestafteroneweek andanothertestaiternineweeks. As expected, the soldiers had forgotten most of the facts in the film during those eight weeks. But, “clearly contrary to the initial expectation," the gen- eral propaganda efiect of the film—the opinion change—had considerably intimatedbetweenthat-inn:andtheseconcltest.TherewasnotthefiliS'h‘t‘i‘t doubt about it: the'soldiers had forgotten the details of the film, but its message had sunk in deeper. ' The research team cheerfuny accepted this unexpected fact and immedi- . . ately proceeded to amount for it by a hypothesis. They found that it could be explained through a theory by the British psychologist, Bartlett, published in 1932. Bartlett had written that “after learning, that which isrecalled tends tobemodifiedwithlapseoftimeinthedirectionofomissionofailbutgen- eral content and introduction of new material in line with the individual‘s attitudes." In other words, as time passes, we’re apt to forget details but reinforce what we remember of the general idea. ' Well, what have we here? Douhtlus the rematch team made a valuable discovery. Yet the whole story is as unlike that of.Archimedes in his hath as can be. For one thing, there is no single scientist, but a team of thirteen men and two wen-ten. Second, the discovery is exactly the opposite from what the scientists expected to find. Third, it is immediately connected up with an idea thought up by another scientist in another country, twenty years before. And finally, there is no “Eurekal,” no shouting from the housetops, no happy announcement to the world. Instead, after reporting their discovery and stating their hypothesis, the researchers add casually: “These highly speculative sugglotions indicate some very interesting areas for future re- search." ...
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