The Scientific Sensibility

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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. “The unsentimental eye, once opened, cannot be closed.”

    This strikes me as a sentiment. Perhaps it’s because I have not yet attained unsentimentality, but I struggle regularly to evict sentiments from my mental processes. (Recently I’ve done so with your help — thanks!) Often it seems that I’ve dumped a load of prejudiced crap from my mind, only to find a week, month, or year later that my new viewpoint allows me to clearly see another load clogging a different part.

    If your “eye” opens, how do you know? If it then closed, would you notice? It’s not as though the great big world of unfortunate stupid fools all agree with each other… If we all work toward our own Subjectivities, we won’t necessarily be working in the same direction?

    Perhaps death offers us a compromise, because our struggles necessarily end at different points along what could be the same path. But even with this accommodation, the “cannot be closed” statement seems problematic.

  2. A lovely essay. Thank you. You might enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Meditations in a Toolshed which gets at something similar.

  3. A lesson to all those who worship at the “one way street” scientific method and forgot that emotions are necessary to reach any discovery in life. Thanks.

  4. Lots of good stuff to unpack here. I also noticed your elliptical approach, one so elliptical it resembles an eccentric orbit. I particularly liked the distinction between discovery and justification, and naming Sensibility while avoiding the typical.

  5. I’m sorry that you dislike the term ‘scientific method’. It is a very nice term. It explains exactly what it is. It is a method, and it is the scientific one. Observe, hypothesize, experiment. And the key in the experiments are to change the variables one at a time.

    It’s not the term’s fault that people are idiots. It’s not the language’s fault that people say “Oh, well, evolution is only a theory”. It’s because people don’t know the language anymore.

    Your post is very good, very well-presented, and brings up lots of interesting points. I disagree with the premise. Change the premise, and I may well agree with the whole thing.

    Besides, you’re not describing real scientists.
    Imagine you had a machine that could answer every question you could think of. Would there still be such a thing as science? Would there still be a point?
    The answer is yes. Because science is about asking questions. That is the core, the heart of science, what makes it exciting, and full of passion.

  6. Would you object to the following rephrasing:

    To be unsentimental is not about suppressing your humanity, it is about making your humanity temporarily irrelevant so you are reduced to the pure act of seeing…and then remapping your humanity back onto what you have seen.

    • Hmm… I think you are making a slightly stronger commitment than I am. Or maybe I am making the slightly stronger assumption about human nature than you are: I think “making your humanity irrelevant” is a slightly irreversible step. You can’t put it back in, at least not in its original form.

      • We probably mean subtly different things by “humanity”.

        To take on a less ambiguous term…

        I would argue that you don’t need to give up sentimentality, but you need to give up belief in sentimentality. You can indulge in sentimentality, but you recognize it as indulgence.

        I suppose I am making the same argument you made about bracketing emotions, just applied one meta-level up…you can be unsentimental about sentimentality.

        When I say “remapping your humanity back onto what you have seen” I mean you have to be able to bracket your sentiments, but once you have done that and once you have seen clearly, you could (conceivably) unbracket those sentiments and indulge them. You just won’t ever believe in them to the same degree ever again…

  7. Well, if you absolutely insist that scientists are all de-humanized monsters, then you’re right; ours views won’t converge.
    And all that because your definition of ‘scientific method’ is narrower than mine.

    • No idea where you’re getting that. I said “typical scientist.”

      I know of no scientists I respect who actually use the method you describe: “Observe, hypothesize, experiment.” It’s been well-documented since Brouwer and Kuhn’s writings on the philosophy and sociology of science that that’s not even close to how science at its best actually works.

      • Oh. How does science at its best actually work?

        The only scientist I really know is my father, so I’m biased, but I know he’s also a good, conscientious scientist, so apparently I know a non-representative subset of the category.

  8. Hello Venkat,
    A strange thing happened today.You see, I do some part-time trading and I was looking if somebody had something to say about contrarian approach to trading. I googled to see if I could find an e-book somewhere on the web.I found one and downloaded that book which was a rar file.The archive though consisted of two books, one related to my search and other by Susan Sontag :On photography. That was the first time I heard of her.And now you too mention her(probably for the first time)!!!
    Strange isn’t it?Or just a normal,though a rare event of probability?

    Btw, many of your writings remind me of UG Krishnamurthy and what he said, though in a very subtle way.Have you read any of his works?

  9. What I glean is that scientific method worshippers are not having or demonstrating a true scientific sensibility.

    If one applies scientific sensibility to its extreme then it eliminates the dichotomy with personal experience of consciousness (which, to me, represents the starting point of spirituality as contrasted with religion and with dry philosophy) and acknowledges the predominance of sentimentality, emotions and irrational thinking. Humor is almost impossible without it.

    In this sense, a hallmark of scientific sensibility is to be willing to keep options open without craving closure while constantly attempting to seek clarity.

  10. I’m not sure we can look at reality without expectations. And I think that those of the finest scientific sensibility would agree. We come with preconceptions and hypotheses which we cannot escape. The trick is to accept that they’re there and try and work with them or around them. There need be no conflict between scientific sensibility and spirituality (though ‘religion’ per se is an interesting point).

    Hypothesis formation is an important part of the scientific method, and it is one of the least ‘scientific’ of human activities. Good scientists appreciate this. I think you’re overly cruel in your characterisation of the ‘typical’ scientist. Scientists I know would all say that when you reduce science to a sausage machine, you stop being a scientist.

    • I don’t think one can look at reality without expectations either. The solution is not to despair and hope for the best, one should still be scientific about things. We should ask “what expectations do we have?” “What is the genesis of the expectations?” “Can they change?”

      Heidegger wrote a very entertaining essay on that subject, “The Question Concerning Technology:”

  11. Daniel Dennett has coined a term – intuition engine – that suits this essay very nicely. The point being that the notion that science per se is not about method but rather a sensibility or frame of mind is a powerful thought that makes sense on a deeper level somehow and spawns off a lot of interesting associations.
    One being that we probably all know people who are scientists at heart without being scientists by profession – and vice versa.

    • That sounds neat, but the best thing you can get with the intuition engine is a good question, right? Something worth exploring? What do you do with that, afterwards?

      • The focus here is not on how to practice science, but rather on how to find new fertile angles on the subject matter, that breaks new ground beyond it.
        Here’s another intuition engine for you (spun off the first, BTW):

        Imagine two scientists in a room with a number of doors, leading to new rooms with doors. Some doors lead to rooms with few doors, some to rooms with many doors and somewhere in this immense labyrinth – let’s call it The Creation just for kicks – there’s even a few doors that lead to staircases and elevators and those are especially rewarding to find.
        Scientist 1 (let’s call him Watson) is focused on method, because he knows that there will always be more rooms with more doors and therefore it is necessary to stick to a formula to avoid getting lost. His work credo might be: “You’ll never know what you’ll find behind the next door”
        Scientist 2 is focused on sensibility (let’s call him Holmes), because he knows that different doors lead to different possibilities and so he’s constantly altering his method in order to be able to home in on the rooms giving access to other floors. His work credo might be “The key to selecting doors is to keep an open mind”

  12. “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.”

    It’s hard to understand what you mean by “truth” here. One will never get a right answer by reading tea leaves, except by accident. Do you mean it in the sense of a weltanschauung?

  13. Not sure I’m with you on this one. I’ll agree that science isn’t always done in a narrowly defined method. But that method is an idealized way of conducting science. And it is one that works. Hypothesis, experiment, confirm/deny. From there, new questions and new hypothesis.

    Hypothesis is the part with imagination. A hypothesis can come about anyway. It is not judged by the hypothesis creator or the method by which it was created.

    There is no need for the scientist to be passionless, or even unbiased. (In fact, I think scientists are generally passionate and are out to prove their favored theory.)

    It is the experimentation itself that is given the role to “judge” the ideas on their fitness. Human judgement is not objective. Reality is objective. The great wisdom of the scientific method is that it embraces this. It allows human minds to incubate ideas, imagine, and prepare their ideas for the big bad world. From there it is subjected to extreme Darwinism. It survives the experiments or not.

    Granted, a certain amount of objectivity is called for in science, and that level isn’t usually so hard to achieve on matters that are not ones of social interaction. So scientist don’t necessarily have to be more neutral, objective, or dispassionate than anyone else, really. And if you look at the history of great scientists, they usually aren’t.

  14. Similarly we have writing sensbility and writing method, and leadership sensibility and leadership method.

    — Mahboob

  15. Interesting point. But I think you’re reading a bit too much into the use of the word method. In my experience, scientists often just use it as a shorthand for the idea that problems should be studied carefully and rigorously. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to say on whether scientists should be emotionless.

  16. The idea of a “scientific method” originated in a philosophical debate about the separation of science from speculative metaphysics and what was perceived as “pseudo-science”. At the beginning of the 20th century every quack and kook claimed to work “scientifically”, so there was a vital interest in figuring out, what science is, who deserves to be called a scientist and who doesn’t. One looked for a “separation criterion” and it was not inquisitional i.e. one didn’t attempt to look into the minds and hearts of people, study the psychological dispositions and so on. The checklist style “crackpot index” followed much later [1].

    It is not clear if it ever had a subject other than the “scientific community” which statistically smoothed individual traits and socially bound people to a norm/ideal, which was articulated.

    [1] When I studied in the 1990s, academic outsiders who made strange claims and distributed flyers in which they refuted Einsteins relativity theory at the university were called “crackpots”. There were always inner-academic rivalries and mobbing but I do believe that colleagues working in the same research field, calling one another “crackpot” is a rather new phenomenon.

  17. Good, clear essay over all, but I think this kind of rhetoric detracts:

    The typical scientist is a caricature of a human.

    It certainly doesn’t jive with my experience. Considering the scientists I’ve known, specifically the ones lacking the scientific sensibility, i.e. the ones practicing what Kuhn would call “normal science”: these are some of the most sincere, earnest, warmest, most human humans I’ve ever met. I agree that “normal scientists” are missing something by adhering too closely to science-as-method, but this thing they’re missing does not seem to be commonly regarded as necessary to being fully human. In fact, I suspect more than 90% of everyone lacks the sensibility you’re talking about.

    So while I agree with almost everything you’re trying to say here and while I’m very sympathetic to the notion of methodological anarchy (I’ve been using the term “deep play” since hearing the term in connection to Salvador Dali’s “methodology”) the gratuitous scientist bashing was distracting. Besides probably being false by any reasonable measure, it doesn’t seem to add anything to the post generally.

    Or are you just trying to be more like Taleb by anthropomorphizing all the ideas you want to beat up on?

  18. I think Aldric is on more solid ground than you actually Venkat; the reason it’s more valuable to analyse science in terms of methods is because that is something that scientists themselves emphasise in their own arguments. More specifically, science involves disputes that are then backed up by experiments that can in theory be repeated, although they may not be.

    It’s a bit like saying that a characteristic of humans is that they have an internal body temperature of 37 deg C. There’s a lot more backup to this than saying that humans are characteristically born on earth, because human body temperature is a property that has it’s own attractor based on the other properties of the human body. It’s not like humans try to be born on earth, but they do try to maintain that temperature.

    In the same way theoretical repeatability is a homogenising force within science, producing the kernel of the scientific method.

    But although the “hypothosesis-testing/statistically-supporting experiment” is a signature part of science, I don’t think the naive loops that have been created on that basis are characteristic:

    For example, many scientists have a situation where they have set up an experiment to test something, and then after the test is completed, tinker with it to produce interesting new phenomena. Others create new rigs expressly for this purpose.

    In fact, many scientists go through quite a few loops of Observe->Create Weirdness->Observe before they come across anything like a hypothesis. Others just produce more and more data, which they ship off for others to observe, and take suggestions of how to adjust their experiments. Others observe and create hypotheses, stand by them, and others test to see if they are true etc etc.

    But on the main topic of your post, I wonder whether the non-sentimental attitude is like being born on earth; there are probably reasons to consider science and that attitude going together, but that doesn’t preclude people being born on the moon, or doing very sentimental science!

    • Woops, did not mean to say “valuable” there. It may actually be more valuable to consider a sensibility, than a specific operating community, (even a relatively cleanly extensible and seperable one like science) because it’s something you can do without reference to your social connections.

      You’d be better off defining the sensibility in it’s own terms, rather than trying to claim it as “more scientific than your puny normal science”!

  19. I like this. Thanks for sharing your observations.

    I’ve bookmarked the site so I can continue the backtracking marathon at a leisurely pace.


  20. A beautiful essay. I especially admire the metaphor of self-awareness as brackets of thought which allow “emotions to drift out of your subconscious”.

    I do take issue with one of your statement:
    “The scientific method is not incompatible with religion, but the scientific sensibility is, because religion presupposes a sentimental engagement of life.”

    I would quote Kierkegaard to disagree. He addressed this engagement:
    “He grasps the task (the task of loving God/life/others) in earnestness and truth: to find lovable the object which has now been given or chosen… There is no limit to love. If the duty is to be fulfilled, love must be limitless. It is unchanged no matter how the object becomes changed.”
    -Works of Love

  21. “. 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.”

    “You cannot achieve this sensibility via a mechanical process of identifying and neutralizing a laundry list of cognitive biases”

    This is possibly something obvious to most readers and a possibly stupid question but i’d really like to understand this.

    Don’t cognitive biases stem from desires? And so isn’t “bracketing the sentiments” the first step in neutralizing cognitive biases?

    • Biases usually operate below the level of conscious desires. You may not be aware of them in a way that you can bracket them. Except for the handful of named/studied ones.