Research Report #20

False Claims About the Scientific Method

It took centuries to gradually recognize and develop the scientific method. Still today there is a cloud of misconception and false claims about it. Here, after consideration of all the pros and cons, is an unbiased presentation of the incorrect and thus false claims about the scientific method. It is the result of intensive specialized study for more than 18 years of the scientific method and its relationship to education.

Type of Claim:  Nonexistence of the Scientific Method

The false claims below are the same or variations of claims of nonexistence:

so-called method
no such thing
alleged method
no universal method
no single method
no one method

Explanation and Falsification

A mass of supporting evidence indicates that the scientific method does exist. There have been thousands of books and papers—written by distinguished and famous figures in the fields of education, science, research, psychology, and philosophy—claiming or citing the existence of the scientific method. Many called it by another name (e.g., method of discovery, method of inquiry, method of invention, method of research), but they were all referring to the same basic method or guide. A review of more than 1,000 books mentioning the subject produced more than 100 slightly different formulas for the steps or stages of the scientific method. It all adds up to a substantial body of knowledge supporting its existence. See Research Report #10 for some of the authors who acknowledge the existence of the scientific method or scientific method.

“No one method” or “no single method.” These claims are a clear case of getting the “facts” wrong by misinterpreting the meaning of the word “method” as used in “the scientific method.” Method, as used in “the scientific method,” is not meant to be a technique which, if applied, will actually help solve a problem. Instead, it is a collective term for the types of mental activity that define the stages of the scientific method.

At these steps or stages, you use creative, non-logical, logical, and technical methods or techniques. No one of these techniques will solve all problems if used alone.

There is a flexible general pattern to the stages of the research process. Where the techniques are applied, the stages are often called “steps,” but referring to them as “stages” prevents misunderstandings and false claims of rigidity.

In the event anyone using the above claims means that there is “no one guide” to reliable knowledge, then this does not hold up either. There may be “no one guide,” but the vast amount of experimenting and debate in the literature clearly points to the scientific method being superior to all other methods or guides.

There is a usual pattern to the method of how we originate, refine, extend, and apply knowledge in all fields. Human thought is not a random operation. Thus, in almost any complex human activity that is repeated over and over, you can safely assume that there will be patterns to the activity. SM-14 is a good example of this pattern of the scientific method.

Problem solving and decision making. Many people, including some authors, do not realize that problem solving and decision making formulas are derived from the scientific method. Even some of those claiming that the scientific method does not exist will offer formulas for problem solving and decision making. This situation is due largely to the lack of adequate research, development, discussion, and publicity about the scientific method that has occurred since Dr. Conant and Sir Karl Popper expressed their negative views. To confirm the relationship of discovery, problem solving, and decision making, read the works of Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, often called the father of artificial intelligence.

Type of Claim: It Is Not a General Method

The false claim is made that the scientific method is only for scientists, that it is not a method suitable for all domains, that it is not a general problem-solving method.

Explanation and Falsification

These claims have hurt the understanding and acceptance of the scientific method. Throughout my reports I show that it is a general method. Please see the page Scientific Research Method But Also Universal Method for All Domains in The Scientific Method Today for additional information.

Type of Claim: Lack of Flexibility

Claims are made that the scientific method consists of a “set of rules,” “mindless adherence to a rigid series of steps,” or that it’s “a fixed set of steps,” a cookbook recipe, “a rigid approach to scientific inquiry,” and that “traditional discussions of scientific method have sought a set of rules that would permit any individual who followed them to produce sound knowledge.”

Explanation and Falsification

While some authors use “steps,” “stages,” “phases,” “ingredients,” and “elements” to describe the stages of the scientific method, it became customary to use the word “steps.” Only an occasional author said that the “steps” had to be followed one after another. Some people used a misinterpretation of the word “steps” to infer a rigid process. In actual use, there is a general pattern to the method that allows one to backtrack, loop, skip, stop, detour to sub-problems, coil, interplay, etc. This false claim that the scientific method is rigid is yet another claim used to discredit the scientific method.

Type of Claim: Only Logic Is Involved

False claims are made that “it’s only a rational method” or “one set of logical rules.”

Explanation and Falsification

Karl Pearson in Grammar of Science (1892) and John Dewey in How We Think (1910), among others, explained long ago that imagination and creativity are essential ingredients of the scientific method.

The famous mathematician Henri Poincaré (1854–1912) stated: “It is by logic we prove—it is by intuition we invent.”

Type of Claim: It Is Only a Textbook Method

Textbooks are often criticized for including the scientific method. The descriptions of the method are also criticized.

Here are some of the false claims made about textbook descriptions of the scientific method:

  • so abstract that it’s not vital
  • interlocking, succinct cookbook-type steps
  • “laws” of scientific method
  • cookbook sequence of truism
  • consists of three steps, each following logically and mechanically after the other
  • such a formal and highly structured description is unrealistic

Explanation and Falsification

Usually, formulas for the scientific method in textbooks are condensed ones, although some are fairly good. The need is not to criticize them but to promote a good standard formula, such as SM-14, for authors of textbooks to use.

The above claims are falsified by the material on this website.

Type of Claim: Based on Philosophical Grounds

There are philosophers, scientists, and others who have not favored the scientific method or claimed that it does not exist as it has been described and formulated over the years, largely on philosophical grounds. Remember that grade school students cannot be expected to understand deep philosophical reasoning like the big dispute in the field of philosophy about induction and deduction.

Type of Claim: Giving False Attributes to the Scientific Method
and Then Claiming That It Does Not Exist

Claims are made that the scientific method is a myth, "fallacy," "artificial method," or "mystical way in which scientists get answers."

Explanation and Falsification

Garbage in, garbage out. People making these claims follow the usual misinterpretation of and false claims against the method. Based on these incorrect “facts,” they claim that the scientific method is a “myth,” etc. It is like the computer industry’s old saying: “garbage in, garbage out.”

Type of Claim: Based on the Nature of Science

In Scientific Research in Education (2002), the following appears under the heading “Nature of Science”:

Advances in scientific knowledge are achieved by the self-regulating norms of the scientific community over time, not, as sometimes believed, by the mechanistic application of a particular scientific method to a static set of questions.

Here they come up with a poor and limited definition of the “nature of science” and make it worse by misrepresenting the scientific method.

Conclusion About the Scientific Method

In my more than 18 years of researching the scientific method, I have maintained a file folder of misunderstandings and false claims about the scientific method. I would estimate that I have spent about a half year of time analyzing and reviewing these because I didn’t want to ignore any contrary evidence.

Since the word method is so ambiguous, it is easy to see how controversies arose. However, since they have seriously interfered with the teaching of the scientific method, there is a great need to have the scientific method properly understood. As the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged its existence in the Daubert case, its legal status is clear.