The other day I posted a quote from Robert Bulwer-Lytton: “Art and science have their meeting point in method.” I got a “like” on that quote from a WordPress blog promoting aura readings, which seemed very silly and inappropriate. It was probably just spam. I am probably overthinking this whole incident. Nevertheless, it drove home to me that the word “method” in that sentence is indistinct. To anyone familiar with scientific method it carries clear entailments about observation, revision, skepticism, and tentative conclusions, but to anyone who rejects scientific method it could mean almost anything. It becomes just a pretty phrase of no particular meaning, it has failed to communicate its message to anyone but the converted, thus an aura reader can “like” it when it is, in fact, by extension attacking the very notion of such nonsense as auras.
What does “method” mean in science?
That question does not have a simple answer. The demarcation problem broaches the difficultly philosophers of science sometimes have distinguishing between science and non-science. Although the edges that define science can be fuzzy, there is a core of features that can help us distinguish, roughly, what is scientific method from what is not.
One of the first principles in scientific method is to assume methodological naturalism. This means that we assume we are only looking for natural causes, not supernatural ones. Why do scientists assume this? It’s quite a big call, isn’t it? It quickly marginalises religious claims to “knowledge” about metaphysics – it quickly marginalises those who believe in supernatural auras. How could scientists justify such a harsh position?
Let us take as an example a tribe of people who believe rain is water falling off the belly of a leaping fish spirit – the stars are glisters from its scales. This is a beautiful and appealing image, and it is as supernatural as it is wrong. Across centuries the tribe grows into a feudal kingdom. Alongside growth in literacy and technology, the kingdom has built up much more detailed and accurate knowledge about the world. One day a woman in the kingdom writes a treatise casually remarking that nobody has ever seen the fish. Only a few intellectuals take notice at the time, but a kernel of doubt is sown. Years later a man, while making some tea, suddenly realises that perhaps – perhaps – rain is caused by all the steam and vapor that rises into the air. This is not an entirely accurate theory, but it is much closer to the truth, and suddenly all this talk about giant fishes is looking rather baroque to the tribe.
The cosmic fish was not knowledge at all, it was just filling in a gap in knowledge with a pretty supernatural story. This is a crucial reason why science marginalises supernatural explanations – they don’t actually explain phenomena, they are just attached arbitrarily. “Droplets off the belly of the cosmic fish” is just as likely an explanation as “an invisible teacup sprinkles it” or any other god of the gaps argument.
This brings us to another science basic known as Occam’s razor or parsimony. If vapor in the air begins to explain the rain then the tribe can use this “razor” to shave off all the decorative bits like giant celestial fish – all the bits that contribute nothing to explanation. These shavings might become myth, and they can still be very useful metaphors in art and literature, but they are not true about the world and it could be dangerous to pretend that they are. The kingdom is left with a neat, tidy hypothesis that they can build upon with more salient information as their scientists uncover it.
Artists might consider this similar to when they decide not to paint a stegosaurus onto a sculpture they are making about poverty in North America.
In science a hypothesis is a proposed avenue for further research. A woman in our hypothetical kingdom could present a viable hypothesis “vapors turn into rain”, but also one without prior plausibility “turtles turn into rain”. The second hypothesis can be set aside without any research due to its lack of plausibility, given what the kingdom already knows about turtles and rain respectively. A hypothesis is just the first step in a scientific research programme. As a hypothesis gathers a body of supporting evidence it becomes an established theory.
It should be fairly obvious to most readers that these two problems and their proposed solutions transgress cultural boundaries, but scientists do operate within different cultural contexts. Some postmodern sociologists have complained that while scientific method is fine in theory, as it is practiced it only reveals to us the biases of researchers. To a limited degree, this is true. Scientists are not independent, they require funding and that funding often commits scientists to a limited set of hypotheses. This is a problem, but with politics, not scientific method.
Scientists are also fallible human beings, and their biases definitely can affect research. However, it was scientists themselves who first noticed this problem with scientific method and sought to minimise the number of biases that affect their research. One tool is double blinding, where the key researchers and/or subjects do not know what they are administering or getting, and thus cannot easily exercise their biases. I say “cannot easily exercise” because the biases still exist, and can potentially affect the research outcome, but they are minimised. Nobody alleges there exists a “pure” science, neither scientists nor philosophers of science. Science is a method that gets us, in a rough way, more knowledge about the world, and knowledge of a better quality, than any other method. All science is imperfect. That does not nearly invalidate it completely.
Another useful methodological tool came in Karl Popper’s idea that scientists should concern themselves with falsifying hypotheses more than with proving them. Under Popper’s concept of science, an idea is scientific so long as it is falsifiable, and all ideas that are falsified (proven false) are pseudoscience. Popper was trying to advance a general concept of science, but in this he failed, neglecting a lot of things that scientists do. Some sciences – systematics and taxonomy – are not falsifiable, more… …organisational. It would be hard to “falsify” a great deal of field work conducted by scientists, but we’d still think of going out into the jungle simply to collect data about frogs as a component of the scientific method, and not only the interpretation of the data after it is collected. Despite all this, falsifiability is a useful tool, and scientists often strive to disprove their favoured theories in an effort to show they are not, in fact, false.
There is a great deal more to scientific method, but you cannot cover a whole field of philosophy in a blog post. Science is probably best thought as a big toolbox for hammering together more reliable knowledge. Art has similarities with science. It is hard to find the edges of art, art has its own “demarcation problem”. Even so, there is a hard and indisputable core to both fields. I’m not certain how well I’ve communicated this, or how badly I have oversimplified it – hopefully not to the point of misrepresenting anything. I am a student and not an expert, though if I’m blogging the onus is upon me to get things right. Just in case, let me share a neat and clear-spoken quote from a post that philosopher of science John S Wilkins wrote about the demarcation problem:
It was Edmund Burke who noted that day shades into night, but on the whole we can tolerably distinguish between the two. The potentially vast set of twilight disciplines are greatly trimmed down to those historical candidates that either develop out of, or in reaction to, science, such that we can nearly always tell that something just isn’t even in the game. Creationism is one of these, and lately HIV/AIDS denial is another. Once they may have been candidates for scientific explanations, but things have moved on, and we can say they are now out of contention, by comparing their claims with the rest of the corpus of science.
We may never have a complete or universal science, and there may always be twilight cases, but mostly we are able to tell when something is, and isn’t, science, by its parentage and its behaviour…
I feel the same applies to art – that we can distinguish the core of the field, even if the edges are fuzzy. Do you agree?