Sunday, April 3, 2011

Scientific Method in Practice (Pt. 1) and Index

In this series of posts, I'm re-reading Hugh G. Gauch, Jr.'s philosophy of science textbook Scientific Method in Practice (Google Books).


Pt. 1 — Introduction, Science in Perspective, The Risk and the Reward
Pt. 2 — Four Bold Claims
Pt. 3 — Three Extremes, Early History
Pt. 4 — Middle History
Pt. 5 — Recent History
Pt. 6 — Presuppositions
Pt. 7 — Worldviews
Pt. 8 — [series is on indefinite hold]

Chapter One: Introduction
The central thesis of this book is that scientific methodology has two components, the general principles of scientific method and the specialized techniques of a given speciality, and the winning combination for scientists is strength in both.'1
Gauch illustrates this view with a diagram of Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Microbiology, and Psychology sharing a common core, 'principles of scientific method.' This is no trivial point. Among non-scientist academics — as well as among some scientists — the notion that any 'methods of enquiry apply with equal efficacy to atoms and stars and genes' has been challenged. Gauch's first-pass answer to such challenges works well as a survey of the main topics in his textbook:
"Do astronomers use deductive logic, but not microbiologists? Do psychologists use inductive logic (including statistics) to draw conclusions from data, but not geologists? Are probability concepts and calculations used in biology, but not in sociology? Do medical researchers care about parsimonious models and explanations, but not electrical engineers? Does physics have presuppositions about the existence and comprehensibility of the physical world, but not genetics?"2
The two major benefits Gauch believes will follow from improved education in core scientific methodology are, first, increased productivity and, second, enhanced perspective.3

This first benefit is highly practical and one Gauch understands from personal experience. As I mentioned in the 'Preview' post of this series, he made a breakthrough of sorts in his field of agricultural science merely by applying the principle of parsimony to crop yield statistics. How many other specific disciplines are neglecting useful general methods?

The second benefit, enhanced perspective of scientific method in 'philosophical and historical context,' makes science 'more interesting' and also 'better integrated.' I take this to mean science won't be seen as a niche concern for scientists, lacking immediate relevance for everyone else. 'Such perspective will also facilitate realistic claims, neither timid nor aggrandized, about science's powers and prospects.'4 Precisely what we need in a time when the role of science is widely underestimated and overestimated!

Chapter Two: Science in Perspective

This chapter begins with the claim that science is a liberal art. I admit this struck me as strange, since the two are often contrasted in phrases like 'liberal arts and science' or 'bachelor of arts / bachelor of science.' It took several re-reads of this section to understand what Gauch — and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — are trying to say when they make this strange sounding classification.

Maybe it will help to start with the example Gauch pulls from M.R. Matthews' Science Teaching.
To teach Boyle's Law without reflection on what 'law' means in science, without considering what constitutes evidence for a law in science, and without attention to who Boyle was, when he lived, and what he did, is to teach in a truncated way.5
Gauch calls this 'humanities-rich science' as opposed to 'humanities-poor science,' which would only teach Boyle's formula as fact and leave it at that. Notice the elements of liberal arts education in teaching Boyle's Law from this wider perspective: philosophical foundations, historical context, and the significance of scientific discovery in society. Matthews also makes the catchy distinction between merely 'training in science' and 'education about science.'6 This may be a bit off-topic, but I'm struck by the analogy of mere 'Bible study' vs. broader 'study about the Bible,' and the enlightening perspective on the former that comes from the latter.

The Risk and the Reward

As anyone acquainted with twentieth-century academic trends will know, the humanities include radically opposing views on truth, meaning, and science itself. Maybe science has kept away from the humanities just to stay sane! Or maybe this distance has contributed to the lack of grounding and the misuse of scientific-sounding terminology in certain movements. Gauch believes the rewards of re-joining science with the humanities outweighs the risks of subjecting science to criticism (which is happening anyway).
True, there are enough troubles in the humanities that a wanton relationship could weaken science. But much more importantly, there are enough insights and glories in the humanities that a discerning relationship could greatly strengthen science.'7
In other words, well-understood science can handle skeptical attacks and flourish within a broader perspective.

1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2
2. ibid. p. 4
3. ibid. p. 7
4. ibid. p. 8
5. Matthews, M.R. (1994). Science teaching: the role of history and philosophy of science. London: Routledge, p. 3
6. ibid. p. 2-4
7. Gauch (2006). p. 26


  1. Thanks for pointing me toward this book. It looks like an approach that I might like.

    I'm currently looking for an introduction to the philosophy of science to supplement an undergraduate course I am developing for our physics department here at George Mason U. I haven't yet found one that I really like. Do you know of any other such books you would recommend that might be worth a look?

  2. Robert,

    I've had Theory and Reality by Godfrey-Smith recommended to me twice, but I haven't gotten to it yet. Its table of contents looks very promising!