Does the scientific method necessarily always produce reliable and valid knowledge?
Scientific method is an epistemological system used by the scientists to investigate natural phenomena, developing new knowledge or correcting preceding knowledge (Jennings, 2008:5). It is considered the best objective framework to construct an accurate representation of the world, it include ideas, procedures, rules, techniques and modes which exist in theoretical research, applied research, development and promotion of scientific activities. This essay aim to prove that although the scientific method does not necessarily always produces reliable and valid knowledge, it is stills a most reasonable inference to help human understand natural phenomena. Therefore, at the first, the basic steps of the scientific method will be introduced. Then the objectivity of the scientific method will be discussed. In addition, some philosophical problems about scientific method will be discussed at the end of the essay.
Between the scientific method and other methods of access to knowledge has a different feature: scientists tried to let the facts prove themselves (Ziman, 2000:158). In order to let the facts prove themselves, scientists must follow a series of steps and steps constitute the scientific method. These steps involve observation, hypothesis, prediction, experiment and reproduction. According to Gower (2002) these steps can be described as following: scientists first collect the observed information to be studied and then put forward a preliminary hypothesis to explain the observations. The hypothesis often is bold guesswork because there is no technique method to create hypothesis. Next, scientists consider which information is useful to test the hypothesis and gather the information by observation or experiments. Scientists usually share and discuss the obtained information with peers who are also doing research in the same area (Jennings, 2008:6). Scientists can help each other through the sharing and exchange of information; this is an important part to promote the development of science. Therefore, the same information and experiment (sometimes the experimental method might be improved) are repeated by other scientists to strengthen the result then to draw a conclusion to support or oppose the hypothesis.
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After enough information is gathered, scientists will decide whether the hypothesis is valid. If it has failed in the experiment, then the hypothesis will be negated and a new explanation or hypothesis will be presented. If the hypothesis passed the experiment, it will suffer more complex and more rigorous experiment. The experiment process is often made more careful and accurate by designing and examining alternative hypothesis and then meliorating the hypothesis which passed the experiment. This common method generally called the hypothetico-deductive method. It starts from the general principle or theory, and then according to the theory derives some concrete conclusions (hypothesis); finally, the conclusion (hypothesis) is applied to the specific phenomenon description and explanation (Ladyman, 2002:18). A general conclusion is obtained after the analysis of many specific examples. Hypothesis and summary are the conventional procedure of scientific method.
When perform an experiment, control group and double blind experiment are the commonly used experimental methods. The control group is the group which does not receive the experimental treatment. Setting the control group in the experiment is in order to eliminate the extraneous variable effects on the experimental results. Double blind experiment is an experimental method; it is in order to eliminate possible subjective bias and personal preferences which exist in the awareness of experimenter and participant. If a hypothesis after withstood many tests still not failed, it might be considered as a valid theory. A theory is logical inference summary that obtained by human cognition of natural and social phenomenon (Jennings, 2008:7). It is worth noting that theories cannot absolutely correct and cannot correct forever, there is always have chance to revise and replace it. Scientists build confidence from a number of successful hypotheses, then to do more research with satisfactory explanation of the observed phenomena.
After understanding the steps of scientific method, it is necessary to discuss its objectivity. Objectivity is the core value of the science and scientific method; it reveals how science is practiced and how scientific knowledge is created (Ziman, 1996:751). To be specific, it means that science should not have biases, emotional factor and commitments. Booth (2004) detailed lists the necessary standard of scientific objectivity.
Firstly, the understandability between subjects, science is not private affairs; critical scientific statement must be communicated with each other. Therefore must use some kind of universal language to express. Secondly, science does not depend on the frame of reference. The position, state of consciousness and angle of the observer are not important. Thirdly, the verifiability between subjects, the correctness of the statement can be convinced through appropriate measures. Fourth, the science does not depend on the method. The correctness of statement is not allowed to rely on the method of verification statement. Finally, no agreement, the correctness of statement is not allowed to establish on the unfounded behavior, such as a resolution or promise.
Additionally, the objectivity of scientific method can be expressed by the reliable and valid conclusion which produced by scientific method. Reliability and validity in science means that any significant achievements must be able to withstand repeated trial and whether the achievements obtained meet all of the requirements of the scientific method (Grinnell, 2011:60). However, the reliability and validity of scientific method lead to some philosophical problems, for example the Hume’s induction problem. Hume considered that the knowledge comes only from sensory experience; people cannot rely on a priori knowledge (Okasha, 2002:24). As Hume said, if the most direct source of scientific results are the induction of the experience of facts, then the correctness of any scientific conclusions are unreliable. Because scientists cannot guarantee the conclusions from limited experience is truth. As Popper said that if a judgment is scientific, then this judgment must be falsifiable, because any empirical verification of the facts is not enough to confirm the correctness of the judgment (Spiegel, 1998:74). Therefore, for a scientific conclusion only has two states, has been falsified or has not been falsified. If it has not been falsified, then the conclusion is not confirmed at this time, hence it is unreliable. If it has been falsified, then the conclusion is wrong, its reliability does also not exist.
However, the objectivity of scientific method is not always exists in scientific community, it can be affected by some factors. For instance, funding is widespread influence on objectivity of science. Sometimes if scientists pay too much attention on the investment may affect their objective judgment, especially when they work with some commercial companies. Moreover, peer review may become another factor to affect objectivity of science. The peer review may lead to bias and personal jealousy (Ziman, 1996:754). When a scientist reviews other scientists’ research, he may not give a good evaluation, maybe because he have different point of view or other scientists do better than him. The biased review may give others the wrong guidance. Another factor can be explained by Matthew Effect. Matthew Effect is refers to that the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer (Merton, 1968:57).
Matthew Effect in science means that the famous scientist may get more trust and support; in contrast, those nameless scientists may be spurned. This is not fair and also violates the objectivity of science.
As discussed above, the scientific conclusions to some extent are unreliable. Nevertheless, the scientific conclusion is still valuable (Booth, 2004:6). This value is reflected in this way: experience so far indicates that although the conclusions obtained by scientific method are unreliable, but these scientific conclusions are more reliable and more effective than other conclusions obtained by other thought way. For instance, if a Mayan shaman always (or most of the time) provides more reliable conclusion than scientific conclusion (such as 2012 doomsday), then the human’s scientific belief may collapse. For the scientific unreliability and the value on the basis of the unreliability, the scientists are well aware of it.
Science is a set of reasonable cognition which comes from the analysis, induction and collation of practice experience. It is a relatively complete and comprehensive theoretical system, the source is practice and the essence is awareness. Practice is the only means to be able to contact the objectivity and subjectivity, the practice is based on the objective existence, thus science is objective. The scientific method intricately combined with science, building of logical and businesslike models to describe nature. The models are limited by previous observations and evaluated by their ability to accurately predict new phenomena. Scientific method usually do not prove or falsify truth, it just provide a method to rank truth. That is why science method cannot explain everything, because science method is based on practice and practice is limited, its essence is just one of the most reasonable inferences. It is like any theory or law of nature is not conclusive, old law always be replaced by the new laws, that because the new law not only can explain the phenomena which can be explained by the old law, but also can explain some phenomena which cannot be explained by the old law. This process will be repeated again and again.