THE METHOD OF SCIENCE AND ITS VALUE SYSTEM

There are no secrets in science. One can do and know all that a scientist does and knows. One does not need to have any faith in him as an individual and accept what he says without questioning it.

The only thing a scientist asks of one is to base his questioning on simple, untempered and uninhibited reason, the kind of reason that characterizes a child on whom society has not yet imposed its beliefs and prejudices. In fact, science is nothing more than questions asked and questions answered, and the method of science, no more than a method of asking questions and answering them, a method that “works” and can be used to solve problems that one faces in everyday life.

Science, is indeed, far more than just physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and mathematics. It is question of ideas and a way of thinking ;  it is a culture and a philosophy of life, a philosophy which allows us to pursue truth without any prejudgment. What, then, is this attitude of mind, this culture and this philosophy of life? It turns out that all these – and other – concomitants and attributes of science emanate primarily from the method that science uses to acquire knowledge.

Certain characteristics of this method, which we call “The Method of Science”, and of knowledge gained by the application of this method, create a value system within their framework, a value system which is rational and reasonable, which appeals to common sense, which is commensurate with knowledge and, above all which has a built-in corrective.

It, therefore, becomes specially important to understand the basis of the method of science, and to have a look at the attributes of knowledge gained through this method and at the value system of science, so that we may understand the culture, the attitude of mind and the philosophy of life, which are the essence of science. This is what we shall endeavour to do here. First let us see what the method of science proposes to do.

Let us take a set of eight statements and look at the truth value of these statements:

1.    The sun rises in the west and sets in the east

2.    If you sow Sonora wheat, you will reap Sonora wheat

3.    Water can be made from hydrogen and oxygen

4.    Some objects can travel faster than light

5.    Atoms are unbreakable

6.    There is life out in space

7.    It is bad omen if a black cat crosses your path

8.    Family planning cannot solve any problem

Out of these eight statements, in my opinion (and I hope you would agree with it), two statements (2 and 3) are right, and four (1,5,7 and 8) are wrong; in the case of the remaining two (4 and 6), the answer is not known – that is, we cannot say as of today whether the statement is right or wrong. Given this situation, one many now ask the following questions:

a.    How was the right answer arrived at?

b.    If we do not know the answer today, how will we be able to find the answer in the future?

c.    If you happened not to agree with my answer, how could I say with confidence that you were wrong?

d.    If you would like to verify my answer, how would you go about it?

The answer to all the above questions is: by using the method of science. The method of science allows one to obtain true and reliable answer to questions.

The steps in the Method of Science

There are four distinct steps in the method of science: the farming of the question, framing of a hypothesis, doing of an experiment, and arriving at the answer which may be a fact or a generalization in the form of a theory or law. At each step in this sequence and in going from one step to the next, we use existing knowledge and logical reasoning.

The questions in science arise out of careful observation or careful analysis of existing knowledge: there is no third origin of a question! In fact, if you have framed your question properly, you are already on your way to finding the answer. What, then, is a well-framed question? A well-framed question is the one for finding the answer of which means are available within the framework of the method of science. Such a question should lead to a hypothesis which can then be tested by an experiment. Let us take an example.

Out of the million species that inhabit our earth, nearly seven hundred thousand, i.e. some 70 per cent of them (all insects), have six  legs – indeed, a remarkable observation, having tremendous implications. Well-framed questions arising out of this observation would be:

a.    How did all the seven hundred thousand or so species come to have six legs?

b.    Do these species have other common features?

c.    Could they have originated in nature from a common ancestor?

These are well-framed questions. The more carefully you observe, the better – framed your question would be

The second step, the hypothesis, is an answer we may consider possible. The single most important attribute of a good hypothesis – a scientific hypothesis – is that it must be testable. A testable hypothesis is one which can be tested by an experiment or on the basis of which a testable prediction can be made.

For example, a common place observation is that objects, it left unsupported in space or earth, will fall to the ground. One can make many untestable hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. One such hypothesis would be they fall to the ground because a particular friend of yours wills them to do so. Another would be: they fall to ground because God desires them to do so. None of these hypotheses is testable.

Therefore, they are not scientific. On the other hand, if you make the hypothesis that an object unsupported in space on earth falls to the ground because there exists a force of attraction between the object and the earth, you can test the hypothesis. In fact, it was starting with such a hypothesis that Newton arrived at his famous Laws of Gravitation.

The third step in the method of science is the experiment. The experiment must have one of the following two objectives: either to find an answer to a question, or to prove or disprove a hypothesis. An experiment which does not attempt to meet one of these two objectives: is unlikely to be a good experiment.

To do an experiment, one must make an inventory of all the steps in the experiment, collect all the material one needs, and carry out all the steps with the utmost possible care. More important, one must record all the observations, paying attention to the smallest detail.

And most important, one must record everything – expected or unexpected – whether one wished it to be so or not. It is in the doing of an experiment in this manner that the values of objectivity, lack of bias and the exercise of care in what one does, come into existence in science. An unexpected observation he made while trying to test quite different hypothesis.

The last step in the method of science is the answer. The answer generally takes one of two possible forms. It could either be scientific fact of limited applicability, or a generalization of wide applicability. Let us consider an example; the case of the two diseases, albinism and haemophilia.

Albinism is the lack of the pigment (called melanin) which gives the skin its natural colour; albinos have an unusual appearance and can be easily spotted: their skin is pinkish white, their hair has the colour of straw, and their eyes are sensitive to intense light and need to be protected.

Haemophilics do not posses the ability to allow the blood to clot, so that a hemophilic would bleed to death because of a small wound which many of us would not even notice. The question is how are these diseases caused?

It has been observed that these two diseases are found in a cluster in families. It is also known that synthesis of melanin and clotting of blood are biochemical processes controlled by biological catalysts called enzymes. A reasonable hypothesis, therefore, would be that albinism and haemophilia are hereditary diseases caused on account of malfunction of an enzyme.

One could do two types of experiments to verify the hypothesis. First, one could look for other albionos or haemophilics in the family of an albino or a hemophilic and determine the familial pattern, if any, in regard to the occurrence of the diseases, for if the diseases are inherited, they must follow the laws of heredity.

The second experiment would be determine, by biochemical analysis, why the albionos cannot make the skin pigment, or why the blood of a haemophilic cannot coagulate, and then see if this biochemical deficiency is present in all haemophilics and albinos.

Both these investigations were done. It was found that these diseases are inherited according to the laws of heredity propounded by Mendel more than a hundred years ago, and now well understood. It was also shown that the disease was due to the lack of a particular enzyme in each case.

Therefore, beginning with an observation, through the construction of a testable hypothesis, and by doing experiments, we came to the conclusion that an inheritable enzyme deficiency can cause a disease: in fact, one of the most important conclusions ever arrived at in biology.

The Uses of the Method of Science

The method of science can be used for various purposes. Let us consider three such uses.

a. To find an answer to a specific question, the like of which has been answered many times before. Here one asks the question, does the experiment, and arrives at the answer, without framing a hypothesis. One uses past experience and existing knowledge to design the experiment and to interpret the results of the experiment. For example, the question may be; find the density of a 50 paise coin.

Indeed, scientists have found densities of objects many, Indeed, scientists have found densities of objects many, many times before and the procedure for doing so is well-known. One may, therefore, skip the hypothesis step and go on to determine the weight and the volume of the coin (the experiment). The density would be weight divided by volume (the answer).

b. To find an answer to a question of which the answer is wholly or partially unknown. In such cases, one begins with an observation or an analysis of existing knowledge (the framing of the question). A hypothesis is then formulated and experiments designed to test the hypothesis; the result of the experiments are recorded. If the results support the hypothesis, the hypothesis could be the answer. If so, more experiments are done to test the validity of the hypothesis.

If the results of any of the experiments do not support the hypothesis, the hypothesis is modified and another set of experiments do not support the hypothesis. Once all the experiments that could be done to test the hypothesis have been done, and all of them have supported the hypothesis, one could say that the hypothesis is correct. The hypothesis, then, becomes the answer to the question initially asked. This is the sequence followed in scientific research.

c. To find an answer to a question under conditions where an experiment is not possible. This is, perhaps, the most exciting application of the method of science. As an example, let us take the question: what should you do to help your brother who is suffering from typoid, to get well soon as possible? One may indeed construct many hypothesis as possible answers to this question.

Should you go to a place of worship and pray? Should  you let nature take its own course and hope for the best? Should you give him an extract prepared from spices or herbs recommended by your grandmother or a friend? Or should you seek the advice of a doctor trained in modern medicine? You obviously cannot test all the alternatives by experiments. Indeed, if you followed the method of science, you would determine which of these answers will be most compatible with existing knowledge.

If such an exercise is done carefully, you would probably come to the conclusion that it is the last suggestion, that is seeking the advice of a competent doctor trained in modern medicine, that is in agreement with existing knowledge and is likely to serve best the objective of curing your sick brother as quickly as possible. (Modern medicine provides a sure remedy for typhoid). The method of science can be applied in this manner for answering questions concerning a vast spectrum of human activity, form decision-making in daily life to ethics, politics, economics and social behavior.

Courtesy :  Angels, Devil and Science
- A Collection of articles on scientific temper,
Publisher : National Book Trust, India

-to be continued in the next issue….

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