The anti-science standpoint

You are here

The anti-science standpoint

The nature and status of sociological research has always been an area of controversy. Thus it makes sense to understand a little about the nature of the scientific method, because until we can grasp the nature of science we cannot hope to understand how, or whether, sociology fits into it.

Since we have to make comparisons we need to know to what it is that sociology is being compared. A good starting point is the work of Karl Popper, particularly since he debunks many of the cherished common sense beliefs concerning the logic of scientific inquiry.

The anti-science standpoint

Karl Popper was a philosopher of science. Sir Peter Medawar, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, said on BBC Radio 3 on 28/7/72: I think Popper is incomparably the greatest philosopher of science that has ever been. The mathematician and theoretical astronomer, Sir Herman Bondi, simply stated:

'There is no more to science than its method, and there is no more to its method than Popper has said.'

Clearly then an outline of Popper's view of science is of great value to us in forming some coherent idea of what science is and of how it advances our knowledge. The first point to grasp is that Popper held a view of science that is quite different to the traditional or 'common sense' view.

The traditional view of science

Science uncovers descriptive laws. These are quite different to social laws, which are prescriptive. Social laws tell citizens what they can or cannot do, and clearly they can be broken. A law of nature is not prescriptive but descriptive - it tells us what happens. Such a law may be true of false but it cannot be broken because it is not a command.

Francis Bacon first systematically outlined the search for natural law. Briefly, it is a method by which general statement are made based on the accumulation of reliable data.

These general statements are called hypotheses - statements of a law like character, which fit all the known facts and explain how they are related to each other. The scientist then tries to confirm his hypothesis by finding evidence, which will support it.

This method of basing general statements on accumulated observations is known as induction and is seen as the hallmark

Scientific statements based on experimental and observational evidence (facts) were contrasted with statements of other kinds, whether based on authority, emotion, tradition, speculation, prejudice or habit.

Awkward questions about the approach laid out above have been asked for a very long time. The philosopher David Hume questioned induction, the very basis of the scientific method. He pointed out that no number of singular observation statements, however large, could logically entail an unrestricted general statement. For example, the fact that the laws of physics have been found to hold good in the past does not logically entail that they will continue to hold good in the future.

The whole of traditional science assumed the regularity of nature - assumes that the future will be like the past. Yet there is no way that this belief can be secured.

The anti-science standpoint

It cannot be established by observation since we cannot observe future events. It cannot be established by logical argument since, as Popper argues:

'From the fact that all past futures have resembled past pasts it does not follow that all future futures will resemble future pasts.'

This means that scientific laws have no rationally secure foundation in logic, or experience. Although as Hume came to believe, we may be so constituted psychologically that we cannot help thinking in terms of them.

What Hume had shown was that pure empiricism was not a sufficient basis for science. Bertrand Russell simply argued that if the principle of induction was admitted (allowed) everything else can proceed in accordance with the theory that all our knowledge is based on experience.

Popper's solution

Popper offers an acceptable solution to the problem of induction. He rejects the orthodox view of science and replaces it with another. His argument points to the logical asymmetry between verification and falsification. What it comes down to, is that we may never be able to prove a theory true (because of the problem of induction), but we can prove a theory false.

In this important logical sense, empirical generalisations though not verifiable are falsifiable. This means that scientific laws are testable in spite if being unprovable; they can be tested by systematic efforts to refute them. Refutation adds to our knowledge, to know that a theory is wrong is to know more than not to be aware that a theory is wrong.

Popper also provides a further example of why pure empiricism is insufficient for scientific advance. Most of the great scientific revolutions have turned on theories of creative imagination and insight. Furthermore, science is not just about the observable - science reveals an unseen world of forces, waves, cells and particles.

The popular notion that the sciences are bodies of established fact is entirely mistaken. Nothing in science is permanently established, nothing unalterable.

What scientists do is base decisions and expectations on the best of our knowledge and provisionally assume the 'truth' of that knowledge for practical purposes, because it is the least insecure foundation available.

Popper's theory is an account of the logic and history of science and not of the psychology of its practitioners. He is not under the impression that scientists in general have regarded themselves as doing what he describes. The point is, that whether they realise it or not, this is the rationale of what they do, and accounts for the way human knowledge develops.

Popper argues that every discovery contains an irrational element, or a creative intuition. Einstein in a letter to Popper states quite explicitly his agreement with Popper that theory cannot be fabricated out of the results of observation, but that it can only be invented.

What is more, observation as such cannot be prior to theory since theory is presupposed by any observation. Failure to recognise this is, in Popper's view, a flaw in the foundation of the empirical tradition. The belief that science proceeds from observation to theory is very widely held, but the belief that we can start with pure observation, without anything in the nature of theory, is absurd.

Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. Observations are interpretations in the light of theories.

However, there are serious objections to falsification. The history of science throws up many examples of falsifying evidence that has been rejected. Chalmers (1982) points out that if falsification had been strictly adhered to both Newton's gravitational theory and Bohr's theory of the atom would have been falsified earlier than they were.