I don’t like or use the term scientific method. Instead, I prefer the phrase scientific sensibility. The idea of a “scientific method” suggests that a certain subtle approach to engaging the world can be reduced to a codified behavior. It confuses a model of justification for a model of discovery. It attempts to locate the reliability of a certain subjective approach to discovery in a specific technique.
It is sometimes useful to cast things you discover in a certain form to verify them, or to allow others to verify them. That is the essence of the scientific method. This form looks like the description of a sequential process, but is essentially an origin myth. Discovery itself is an anarchic process. Like the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, I believe in methodological anarchy: there is no privileged method for discovering truths. Dreaming of snakes biting their tails by night is as valid as pursuing a formal hypothesis-proof process by day. Reading tea leaves is valid too. Not all forms of justification are equally valid though, but that’s a different thing.
But methodological anarchy does not mean — at least not to me — that there is no commonality at all to processes of discovery. The sensibility that informs reliable processes of discovery has a characteristic feature: it is unsentimental.
An unsentimental perspective is at the heart of the scientific sensibility. But first, why “sensibility”?
Susan Sontag’s description of a sensibility in her classic essay, Notes on Camp gets it exactly right:
Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste…Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea…[t]o snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble.
The scientific method is a sensibility crammed into the mold of a system. It is a an attempt to externalize something subtle and internal into something legible and external. The only reason to do this is to scale it into an industrial mode of knowledge production, which can be powered by participants who actually lack the sensibility entirely. Such knowledge production has been characteristic of the bulk of twentieth century science (in terms of number of practitioners, not in terms of value). Hence the Hollywood stereotype of the scientist as a methodological bureaucrat; someone who worships at the altar of a specific method. Sadly, Hollywood gets it right. The typical scientist is a caricature of a human.
When we objectify discovery into a legible system and a specific method, the subjective attitude with respect to that system and method becomes impoverished in proportion to the poverty of the system and method itself.
So to characterize our subhuman scientist, we use words like objective, emotionless and disinterested. The first is a reductive characterization: the unsentimental scientific sensibility can turn its gaze onto purely subjective realities and discover riches. To limit it to objectivity is to limit it to the narrow realm of the experimental method. Similarly, lack of emotion turns into a virtue instead of a crippling blindness. And finally when we say that to do science is to adopt a disinterested stance, we institutionalize it. The scientist becomes an impersonal judge in a courtroom of evidence, free from any conflicts of interest. It is no wonder that when film-makers attempt to humanize scientist characters, they have them succumb to personal motivations.
The scientific sensibility, however, is both broader and more fertile than this combination of an impoverished system and a sub-human caricature — objective, emotionless and disinterested. To look at the world with the scientific sensibility is to be more human, not less.
The word unsentimental is central here. To be unsentimental is to be self-aware. To be unsentimental, you must first deal with your inner realities at the level of sentiments rather than emotions. You do so by creating mental room for emotions to drift out of your subconscious, recognizing the desires that generate them and labeling the results. If you can go beyond that and bracket the sentiments for further contemplation, you can be unsentimental. The sentiments that accompany you on a journey of discovery are part of the phenomenology that you must process on that journey.
To have a perfectly unsentimental sensibility is to be free to look at reality without expectations about what you will see.
You can be trained in the scientific method. In fact the method, in all its impoverished glory, can actually be programmed into a computer for certain problems. You cannot, however, achieve the scientific sensibility through a training process or program it into a computer. At least not yet.
You cannot achieve this sensibility via a mechanical process of identifying and neutralizing a laundry list of cognitive biases. Nor can you get there through an effort of will or by struggling to suppress emotions. To be unsentimental is not about suppressing your humanity, it is about making your humanity irrelevant so you are reduced to the pure act of seeing.
The only way to get there is by making a sacrifice: you must give up the pleasures of a sentimental engagement with life. The unsentimental eye, once opened, cannot be closed. The adoption of the scientific sensibility is an irreversible step. Your experience of love, friendship and fun will change. Expect your passions to be tragic passions. If you are religious, expect a troubled existence. The scientific method is not incompatible with religion, but the scientific sensibility is, because religion presupposes a sentimental engagement of life.
There is one consolation though. The scientific sensibility makes humor and irony your constant companions for life.
I will be on vacation next week until after the Labor Day weekend. See you all again week after next.