Meaning, Truth and Vested Interests: The Rise and Fall of the Scientific Method

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What ever happened to the search for truth and understanding the universe? These days, much of what’s done in the name of science has more to do with politics, the securing of grants for educational institutions, and the advancement of a company’s products.

It’s in the very nature of Homo sapiens to want to know and understand the world around us. And over the centuries, various systems of belief evolved to assist humans in their never-ending quest to unlock the mysteries of existence. Some of these systems were primarily rooted in pure conjecture or fantasy. Others were rooted in myth and emerging disciplines of philosophy and religion. But the system of knowledge acquisition that slowly became dominant after the 18th century and arguably has had the greatest impact on the nature and quality of modern human life is what was eventually termed the scientific method.

Just what is the scientific method? Until recently, there was little debate about the definition. It has been long accepted that at its core, the scientific method is a system or mode of gathering information and reaching conclusions about the meaning of that information. Some of the basic tenets of the scientific method include gathering only objective, measurable, observable data, and demonstrating through experiment various principles or laws.

There once was no debate that the scientific method was inherently an inductive-hypothetico-deductive method of inquiry. This definition affirms the laws of logic first outlined by Aristotle. Within this framework, one forms a conjecture or hypothesis (an example of inductive reasoning) based on one’s observations and experience, and then makes a prediction deriving from that hypothesis that can be subjected to empirical test (an example of deductive reasoning). Data gathered under the method can never absolutely verify (prove the truth of) a claim made in one’s hypothesis. But even limited data can prove the incorrectness of the claim, especially if one’s theory fails to pass what’s called a “critical test.” Einstein reportedly said: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right but a single experiment can prove me wrong.” The whole format of the method is based on an inherent quality of parts of propositional systems within logic. More specifically, when we propose a relationship (e.g., “P implies or leads to Q”) and that relationship is true, whereas some of the other propositional statements we might make regarding the relationship between P and Q may or may not be true (e.g., “Q implies P;” or, “if not P, then not Q”), the proposition (called the contrapositive statement) “if not Q then not P” must necessarily also be true.

There’s good reason for adhering to these important tenets of the scientific method. For example, I could come up with a theory that the earth was once inhabited by a race of “stone people” from another planet who eventually became extinct. I could also propose that when the bodies of these beings decayed, small remnants were left scattered all over the earth. I could then use a pebble I found on the beach as “proof” of my theory. Now, aside from the complete ridiculousness of this example (and I know it’s full of a lot more flaws than the main one I cite), it’s the error in logic (called affirming the consequent) that’s most important for the scientist. That is, just because I predict we’ll observe something if my theory is correct doesn’t mean that when we observe that something, it proves my theory.

What true scientists are supposed to do to learn the real truth about things is to find any single example they can for why someone’s explanation of something might not be quite right, forcing the theory’s proposer and the entire scientific community to either abandon or refine the theory and then propose other experiments to test even those refinements. What scientists are definitely not supposed to do, however, is to try and gather evidence that “supports” their notion or appears to validate their prediction. Yet, in recent years, that’s exactly what most supposedly “scientific” studies do. It’s also why we find ourselves in the position of regularly debunking sensational “discoveries” years later.

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The reasons for the decline in adherence to rigorous scientific methodology are many. Today, huge companies with a lot of money at stake finance much of the “research” that is done. Much of what’s done in the name of science often has much more to do with politics, the securing of grants for educational institutions, and the advancement of a company’s products. The scientific community is no longer a group of committed skeptics eager to “shoot down” the latest conjecture in a relentless pursuit of the ultimate, unassailable, or hard to deny truth. Even traditional experimentation has taken a back seat to statistical models of hypothesis-testing. And the ways you can structure statistical tests and interpret their results to serve one’s interests and biases are far too numerous to count. Not to mention the fact that many such studies report findings in a manner that implies a causal relationship between the factors studied, even though true scientists understand that no such causal inferences should be made.

Personally, I mourn the loss of purity of method within many of the branches of science. I’m also increasingly skeptical of studies that are bankrolled by heavily vested interests. I lament that science departments in universities are under great pressure to “publish or perish” and are dependent upon funding from less than unbiased sources.

Modern society owes a lot to science and the technological revolution that genuine scientific inquiry helped produce. But alas, pure scientific methodologies have fallen from grace and position of reverence. And I fear that we’ll all eventually be less well off if we allow the tenets of true scientific inquiry to erode much further.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr George Simon, PhD on .

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