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Friday, 25 November 2016

Curtiosity about Scientific methods

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

— Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771) Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of ballyhoo about scientific method.  I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it.  Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it.

— P. W. Bridgman (1882 - 1961), Reflections of a Physicist, 1949.

The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

— Thomas Henry Huxley, (1825 - 1895), Biogenesis and Abiogenesis; Collected Essays viii.

We physicists are always checking to see if there is something the matter with the theory.  That's the game, because if there is something the matter, it's interesting!

— Richard Feynman, QED, Penguin Books, 1990, 8.

It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast.  It keeps him young.

— Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, Methuen University Paperback, 1967, p. 8.

Play is a means by which young animals are trained for the responsibilities and conflicts of adult life.  The higher the animal the longer is the period of play and the more keenly it is enjoyed.  There is something of Peter Pan in all of us and in good scientists more than most.

— Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 1915 - 1965, Melbourne University Press, 1971.

Louis Pasteur, portrait, Musée d'Orsay

Preconceived ideas are like searchlights which illumine the path of the experimenter and serve him as a guide to interrogate nature.  They become a danger only if he transforms them into fixed ideas — this is why I should like to see these profound words inscribed on the threshold of all the temples of science: 'The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe something because one wishes it to be so...'

— Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895), quoted by Robert S. de Ropp in The New Prometheans, 1972, p. 80.

The story is told in the University of Paris that the philosophers there once disputed among themselves as to the number of teeth in a horse's mouth.  It was argued that the number could not be a multiple of three, because that would imply disrespect to the Trinity; nor could it be a multiple of seven, for God created the World in six days and rested upon the seventh.  Neither the authority or Aristotle nor the ingenuity of the schoolmen could resolve the problem, but it was finally settled by a young man, who opened the mouth of a horse, and counted the teeth.  The doctors of the University were not convinced by this novel and unintellectual procedure; but the opening of the horse's mouth marks the birth of the scientific method.

— Professor Eric Ashby, The Place of Biology in Australian Education, inaugural lecture, Sydney, 1939.

To the Greeks of Aristotle's time, and for two thousand years afterward, scientific truth was best discovered and expressed by deducing the nature of things from a set of self-evident premises, which accounts for Aristotle's believing that women have fewer teeth than men, and that babies are healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north.  Aristotle was twice married but so far as we know, it did not occur to him to ask either of his wives if he could count her teeth.  As for his obstetric opinions, we are safe in assuming he used no questionnaires and hid behind no curtains.  Such acts would have seemed to him both vulgar and unnecessary, for that was not the way to ascertain the truth of things.  The language of deductive logic proved a surer road.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, 1986.

The long chains of simple and easy reasonings by means of which geometers are accustomed to reach the conclusions of their most difficult demonstrations had led me to imagine that all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only that we abstain from accepting the false for the true and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.

— René Descartes (1596 - 1650), Discourse on Method, 16.

Hypotheses lead persons to try a variety of experiments, in order to ascertain [test] them.  In these experiments new facts generally arise.  These new facts serve to correct the hypothesis which gave occasion to them.  The theory thus corrected serves to discover more new facts, which . . . bring the theory still nearer the truth.

— Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804), The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments, 1767. p. 421.

One is at liberty to suppose that somewhere along the way the scientist has intuitively abstracted rules of the game for himself, but there is little reason to believe it.  Though many scientists talk easily and well about particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterizing the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods.

— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 47.

According to [Popper], it is the task of the scientist, guided by the knowledge of his time, to propose a theory that takes into account what is known, but which, over and above this, forecasts what future experiments and observations should show.  It is only if a theory submits itself to empirical tests that one can call it scientific.  If such an empirical test goes against the theory, then the theory has been disproved.  If it agrees with the forecasts of the theory, then it becomes the task of the theorist to go on making more and more forecasts, to go on sticking his neck out.  A theory is scientific only as long as it lives dangerously.  If it is not at risk, it is not part of science.

— Sir Hermann Bondi, Setting the Scene.

No scientific theory is a collection of facts.  It will not even do to call a theory true or false in the simple sense in which every fact is either so or not so.

— Jacob Bronowski (1908 -    ), Science and Human Values, Julian Messner, 1956.

In parts of biology — the study of heredity, for example — the first universally received paradigms are still more recent; and it remains an open question what parts of social science have yet acquired such paradigms at all.  History suggests the road to a firm research consensus is extraordinarily arduous.

— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 15.

Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill-prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations.

— Claude Bernard (1813 - 1878)

It is the greatest discovery in method which science has made that the apparently trivial, the merely curious, may be clues to an understanding of the deepest principles of nature.

  Sir George Paget Thomson (1892- ????)

Science cannot discover truth, but it is an excellent means of discovering error.  The residuum left over after errors are eliminated is usually called scientific truth.

— Kenneth Boulding

It remains true that, on the large lines, Richelieu could afford to be sincere, Bismarck could not; and to be compelled to insincerity in the large lines is a heavy burden, a large tax upon energy.

— Hilaire Belloc (1870 - 1953), 'Richelieu and Bismarck' in Stories Essays and Poems, Everyman Library 948, 1957, 197.

The main difference of modern scientific research from that of the Middle Ages, the secret of its immense successes, lies in its collective character, in the fact that every fruitful experiment is published, every new discovery of relationship explained.

— H. G. Wells (1866 - 1946), quoted in Aubrey's Brief Lives, Penguin Books, p. 69.

Scientists who are more interested in experiments than in ideas are liable to quote Huxley's remark about 'the tragedy of a beautiful theory destroyed by one little fact'.  I found it of enormous interest, mixed rather often with alarm and despondency, to watch over a decade clonal selection theory being destroyed several times by what appeared to be incompatible facts.  Yet, over the same years, virtually every new discovery of general significance made clonal selection seem more and more reasonable.  The little 'hard fact' in biology nearly always includes someone's interpretation and interpretations have a tendency to change.  No single experiment ever established one biological generalisation or refuted another.  Immunology is perhaps one of the most soft-edged of the biological sciences.

— Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 1915 - 1965, Melbourne University Press, 1971.

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one question grew before.

— Thorstein Veblen (1857 - 1929), The Place of Science in Modern Civilization.

At first useless, these facts had to remain unperceived until the moment when the needs and progress of science provoked us to discover them.

— Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire (1772 - 1844), quoted by Stephen Jay Gould in 'How does a panda fit?' in An Urchin in the Storm, Penguin, 1987.

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