The Scientific Method


Science as a Tradition:

Does It Stand Examination?


by the Editors


The traditional view of science is that scientists are searching for the truth in a disinterested and objective way. It is generally admitted that there are occasional dishonest scientists, but these are regarded as highly exceptional.

This self-image of scientists has been subject to much skeptical analysis in recent years. Sociologists of science studying scientific controversies have found that evidence is only of many factors that influence what is accepted as authoritative. These other factors include funding, prestige, rhetoric and political influence.

Seven fascinating case histories of scientific controversy are described in one of the key books in science and technology studies, The Golem: What You Should Know About Science by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 1998).

This book helped trigger off a controversy within the scientific world called “Science Wars”, and was attacked by “science warriors” who tried to defend the old image of science.

In the words of Collins and Pinch, the science warriors “seemed to think of science as like a fundamentalist religion: mysterious, revealed, hierarchical, exhaustive, exclusive, omnipotent and infallible. The language is that of the Crusade or the Witch Hunt; victory, confession and retraction are the goals wherever heresy is encountered.”

Other discussions on the practice of modern science have focused on the political and economic forces that influence it. A recent critique by Daniel S. Greenberg, Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press, 2002) gives a masterly overview of how big science and big government have operated together in post-war America.

For 40 years Greenberg has produced a newsletter, “Science and Government Report”, in which he has analysed Government spending on science. The scientific establishment was not used to being held up to the same standards of accountability as other special interest groups but Greenberg showed that time and time again, scientists were as grasping as any other spending department. Far from being pure, research science involved money­grubbing politics, backroom deals, special pleading, inflated claims and scare-mongering. Too often, in return the public got shoddy science and waste on a monumental scale.

Another area of concern has been a number of well-publicised cases of scientific fraud. William Broad and Nicholas Wade provided an insightful and comprehensive analysis of fraud and deceit in science in their book Betrayers of the Truth (Oxford University Press, 1985). As they express it, “The claim of science to represent a reliable body of knowledge rests four-square on the assumption of objectivity, on the assertion that scientists are not influenced by their prejudices or are at least protected from them by the methodology of their discipline. Science is not an idealized interrogation of nature by dedicated servants of truth, but a human process governed by the ordinary human passions of ambition, pride and greed, as well as by all the well-hymned virtues attributed to men of science.”

Dogmatic skeptics often try to discredit research in unorthodox areas by accusing researchers of fraud and deceit, but Broad and Wade conclude that fraud is much most likely to be successful in mainstream, uncontroversial areas of research. In controversial areas there is usually a far greater degree of skepticism and scrutiny:

“Acceptance of fraudulent results is the other side of that familiar coin, resistance to new ideas. Fraudulent results are likely to be accepted in science if they are plausibly presented, if they conform with prevailing prejudices and expectations, and if they come from a suitably qualified scientists affiliated with an élite institution. It is for lack of all these qualities that new ideas in science are likely to be resisted.”

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