Yes, Virginia, There is a method to science.


(I don’t expect y’all to watch this, but it is a perfect example which illustrates the point of this article).

YouTube videos on how to fix your washing machine, car, what have you, are ubiquitous. It is amazing. And they clearly demonstrate what doing science is all about: Systematic, not mere cursory observation, data collection, theorizing, hypothesis testing by experiment, replication, publication.
A plumber, a mechanic, an appliance serviceman, a farmer fixing his own machines, using years of hands-on exeprience, maybe formal training, full of various fixes based on prior knowledge, (from systematic observation), is just doing good old hypothesis-test, discard, try again: experimentation. That’s science. Using all the steps of the scientific method.
And nowadays, just like scientists, mechanics and servicemen publish their successful results… on youtube!
Others try it, and it works: replication. Science. Just like the guys in the lab; “Real” scientists. The method is the same, and despite various ways to creatively produce hypotheses that may vary from scientist to scientist, person to person, all rely on systematic observation, often years of study or apprenticeship. Both the grad student or the technician in a given discipline, as well as the plumber and mechanic, have to repeat the process of plain old grinding out hypothesis-test, hypothesis-test, replication and publication.

I just fixed my gas dryer with the video above. I followed the troubleshooting paths checking each component. Each step represents a hypothesis: “this component is the problem”. You test it. It checks out OK and you discard that hypothesis having learned something about the real world as it is in front of you. And you move on to the next hypothesis, the next component and do another experiment. Hypothesis/test. Just good science, however mundane. It was my second experience at disassembling the dryer and troubleshooting. Not having had formal training, I got my systematic observation following the experienced service guy’s steps from the video. I learned a lot about my dryer I never knew, taking it apart and checking components one after another, seeing what happened when I did each step on two different occasions now.

Some philosophers don’t like hearing that plumbing or mechanical procedures exemplify science: Massimo Pigliucci, prominent among them.

Others, like the evolutionary geneticist and experimentalist/published scientist (emphasis mine)
Jerry Coyne, see the equivalence clearly. This is excerpted from his post on What is Science.
” …in summary it incorporates investigations limited to the real world, the formation of theories about phenomena, the insistence that those theories be falsifiable through general agreement by rational people, and the idea theories should be parsimonious, invoking no more assumptions or entities than necessary to explain the observations. This definition of “science,” of course, includes plumbing and car mechanics (“my hypothesis is that there’s a bad fuse in the electrical system”). To me it’s not so important what the dictionary says as that there is methodology held in common by plumbers and molecular biologist.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein,a philosopher/writer I greatly admire, in otherwise excellent piece,
The Mattering Instinct,” worth a read on its own right, declares however, there is no scientific method, then describes the precise steps of the method geologists, biologists, physicists, and yes, plumbers and mechanics all use:

“People talk about the scientific method. There’s no method. That makes it sound like it’s a recipe: one, two, three, do this and you’re doing science. Instead, science is a grab bag of different techniques and cognitive abilities: observation, collecting of data, experimental testing, a priori mathematics, theorizing, model simulations; different scientific activities call for different talents, different cognitive abilities.”

Despite the rest of the article being spot on and very insightful about the uniquely human need for our lives to matter: for what we do to matter to ourselves, to our fellow humans and in the grand scheme of things (something your dog has no capacity for)… I think she misses the point utterly about science. Empirical examination, theorizing, and testing against reality is not a grab-bag at all. It is the steps we all take, must take, do take, in doing science. And we gotta do it again to verify whatever we found out wasn’t a fluke. Then we tell the rest of the world about it.

Lastly, taking the approach that the world and your dryer follow physical laws, is not just some purely metaphysical assumption, as some claim. We have discovered that is how reality, the world, the dryer and its components (made of real-world physical stuff), works. Thru systematic observation, sometimes shitloads of it, we start to see the regularities of the world as we find it. It could have been otherwise: that nature was capricious. But we have found it does follow rules, laws we can discern and delineate. Our intuitions of patterns may not be deep enough to discover the incredible complexities of nature immediately most of the time, but nonetheless, nature is law-like. You wont fix the dryer (or cure cancer, or make build a better building), by throwing magic powder and incantations at it. I’ve said for years, that all this may well be just an illusion as the mystics proclaim, but reality as we experience it, surely is common and consistent. It works the same way for all of us. We bang our heads against nature’s wall every day and the result is the same, headache and discovery. And fixed dryers.

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