The scientific method

This post is about the scientific method, which has been defined as “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses, and how it could and should relate to coming to a view on the big questions that affect us.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. The Enlightenment was a revolution in human thought. This new way of thinking was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidenceWikipedia – Age of Enlightenment.

When I completed my O-Levels at school, I had to weigh my interest in history with that of my then greater interest in chemistry, and that influenced my choice of A-Levels. On completing my science leaning A-Levels, I went onto university and majored in chemistry, followed by careers as a secondary school science teacher and then as a computer scientist. But I never lost my interest in history and later, when the opportunity arose, I was able to study for another degree, with the Open University, in arts based subjects, specifically history, philosophy, religion and literature, despite not relating much to my then career. After doing the mandatory Arts Foundation Course, the next course I chose to do was about “the Enlightenment”, fascinated as I was by the above description, which somehow promised to bring together my interest in science and the scientific method and that of history and the arts.

One of my assignments was to study “A treatise of the scurvy” by James Lind, published in 1753. These days, incidents of scurvy are rare and the causes around Vitamin C deficiency are well understood. Not so in Lind’s day, when scurvy took the lives of many sailors. What Lind’s treatise is about was based on what we would regard these days as the findings based on carrying out clinical trials. This resulted in providing compelling evidence that scurvy could be cured if those affected or in danger of being affected had access to regular doses of citreous fruit, which while Lind would not have known this, contained the all important Vitamin C. This is a powerful example of someone applying the scientific method to tackling a real problem and doing some good as a result.

James Lind and the Enlightenment came to mind for two reasons. Firstly, there are a number of issues I have recently written about in my blog or will do soon that have a bearing, as I will shortly explain. Secondly, the cover story of Time magazine, dated June 23rd 2014, had the intriguing title “Eat Butter. Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong”. This interested me for if I get the chance I would eat butter rather than margarine as I prefer the taste, yet I recall back in my youth the “experts” declaring butter was not good for you and for this reason we should switch to margarine.

Sadly, butter and other fatty foods I liked were rather frowned upon because of its perceived link to heart and other diseases. Such was the force and conviction by which this notion was presented, based on “selective” evidence, that dissent or questioning these findings were often quickly crushed. What replaced these out of favour foods were often of the processed and artificial variety rather than what we might class as natural. As the article pointed out, the new findings present a more complex picture and natural foods taken in moderate portions and as part of a balanced diet are generally good for you.

There are many questions that are on my mind at this time, where the answers I might venture to give are at best partial. The reasons are invariably complex and manifold. Firstly, there is a often a lot of evidence to sift through, not always easily accessible or digestible. Secondly, experts are often not balanced and their own views often lead to selecting those facts that best match their views. Thirdly, such is the standard of debate these days that too often what we hear are sound bites and what we observe are polarized positions.

In this respect, the heroes of the Enlightenment, such as James Lind, may help us out, albeit not completely because some of these questions can only be fully answered with reference to our view of the world, whether religious or otherwise, which among other things may influence our selection of the facts that best match that view. But we can try to recognize that inherent bias and get our facts straight, then to weigh them and finally come to conclusions based on the facts. Surely that is what the scientific method is about and one of the lessons learnt and legacies left from the Enlightenment.

The popular movement that followed on after the Enlightenment was Romanticism, which according to Wikipedia was “an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. Partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it was also a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography, education and the natural sciences. Its effect on politics was considerable and complex; while for much of the peak Romantic period it was associated with liberalism and radicalism, its long-term effect on the growth of nationalism was probably more significant”. Its emphasis on imagination, mystery and sentiment provides an interesting counter to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, yet in a way both movements have something to say about how we approach the big questions facing us today.


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