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Doubt and the Scientific Method

This took me by surprise: Over in that global laboratory of abnormal psychology that most of us call Facebook, a man I’ve know for almost 35 years grew furious at me. My crime? A longstanding contention of mine that doubt lies at the heart of the scientific method. Note well that we were not talking about Issues. Not evolution, not climate, not even the Paleo Diet. None of that had even come up. No: We were talking about the scientific method itself.

I’ve seen this weird “doubt undermines science” business come up before, though never directed at me personally. Nonsense, of course. Doubt really does lie at the heart of the scientific method. This is not some opinion of mine that I pulled out of thin air. Hey, if somebody wants to start a new game show called “Are You Smarter Than Karl Popper?” I can recommend the first season’s contestants.

Here’s my understanding: The scientific method requires a trigger, and that trigger is doubt. Some smart guy or gal looks at something we think we know, often but not always after examining a pile of new data, and says, “This smells fishy. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.” That initial insight leads to hypothesis, experiment, repeatable results, and eventually (one would hope) new or corrected knowledge. Absent doubt, nobody thinks anything smells fishy, no closer look happens, and whatever booboo might be in there somewhere never comes to light. Without doubt, there is no science.

It’s pretty much that simple.

So how do we explain my excoriation for stating the obvious? I have a theory, heh. It involves those idiotic Facebook memes that set religion against science. Some are worse than others; my personal antifavorite is the one that reads, “Religion flies aircraft into buildings. Science flies spacecraft to the Moon.” Gosh, was it the Episcopalians? And did engineering maybe have a role? Let it pass; there are plenty more. What they represent is tribal chest-thumping by people who want to replace religion with science. That sounds fishy to me. I probed a little and began to get a suspicion that what the chest-thumpers really want is the certainty of religion under a new name.

What tipped me off is the fact that the chest-thumpers were always talking about scientific knowledge, but never the scientific method. The reason is pretty simple: The scientific method is the single most subversive system of thought that humanity has ever created. Nothing that we know (or think we know) is safe from the scientific method. Not even physical laws. Back in the 1950s there was a physical law called the Law of Parity, holding that nature does not differentiate left from right at the subtomic level. Some physicists thought the Law of Parity smelled fishy. They put their heads together, came up with some truly brilliant experiments, and snick! They nailed the Law of Parity through an eye socket. They nailed it because they doubted it. And we’re not talking the Paleo Diet here. We’re talking a law of physics.

That scares people with a strong craving for certainty. At this point we need to talk a little bit about the religious impulse. Note well that I am not talking about religion itself here. I’m talking about the primal hunger for certain things that religion provides. The two biggies are meaning and certainty. (Belonging is a third biggie, but I feel that religion inherits the hunger for belonging from its primal sibling, the tribal impulse. I’ll have to take that up another time.) As anyone who’s read Viktor Frankl has learned, “meaning” is an important but slippery business. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it looks to me like the meaning we see in our lives grows out of order. There is huge comfort in living lives that follow a predictable template. We all imagine lives lived reliably in a certain way. We do not imagine chaotic lives, and generally avoid chaos when we can. (We may grumble about the template we’re currently living, but what we want is a better template, not chaos.) When chaos strikes, our lives can quickly move from meaningful to meaningless. A need for certainty follows from the need for order. We want to be certain that we’ve chosen a path that leads toward meaning. As often as not, this means choosing templates that work for us and embracing them without doubt. Some people take this too far, and become reactionaries or fanatics who insist that the templates they’ve discovered are the only ones that anyone should embrace. Alas, this is where the religious impulse gets tangled up in the tribal impulse, which, unimpeded by laws or cultural norms, gallops straight toward genocide.

Religion satisfies the religious impulse by providing us with wisdom narratives that suggest life templates, calendars of rituals and festivals that repeat down the years and reinforce a sense of the orderly passing of time, and saints as heroes whose very meaningful lives may be emulated. (I hope my religious friends will relax a little here and look closely at what I’m saying: I am not denying that God is behind religion. I’m suggesting the mechanisms by which God gets our attention and calls us home.)

What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy. Science makes for bad religion, however, because it creates its own heretics and subverts its own wisdom narratives. It creates disorder via doubt, in the cause of creating new order that more accurately reflects physical reality. Certainty in science is always tentative: What the scientific method gives, the scientific method can take away.

This makes people of certain psychologies batshit nuts.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m something of an anomaly, in that my need for order doesn’t march in lockstep with any need for certainty. I’m an empiricist. I’ve created an orderly and meaningful life that works for me, but when circumstances require change, I grit my teeth and embrace the change. Incremental change is one way to avoid chaos, after all: Deal with it a little at a time, and you won’t have to deal with an earthquake later on.

In a sense, I live my life by the scientific method. Sometimes I doubt that that what I’m doing is the right thing for me. I stop, think about it, and often discover a better way. Doubt keeps pointing me in the right direction, as it does for science. Certainty, well…that points in the opposite direction, toward brittleness and chaos. Science doesn’t go there. None of us should either.


  1. Dave Thompson says:

    Well put sir and thanks for sharing the insight.

  2. Trevor Tompkins says:

    Whether one calls it doubt, or even if it isn’t the “trigger,” for science, the idea of screaming ‘consensus’ certainly has the ring of “no need to look closely,” which screams to me “LOOK REAL CLOSE.”

    I presume this is something I, as a reader of this blog, share with the writer.

    That said, I have found that such an inborn rule of thumb comes with costs. In order to look real close, you have to know how to look, and that has taken years of education–sometimes way beyond even the graduate degrees earned. It has also involved the removal of my personal psychological filter–not always successful (my own doubt could be a psychological trick. Yikes). It also makes reading science reports a pain since I refuse to accept them until I check the results and processes myself.

    Nice to read that others think about this too.

    note:I’m unsure of the use of the term “scientific method.” If what is meant is the process of scientific discovery/analysis, I’m in agreement. But there ARE people who seem to believe that there is a singular scientific method. Unfortunately there are even websites that outline such a method, and high schools that teach that this is the case.

  3. Erbo says:

    One of my favorite insights from Dr. Asimov (from Fantastic Voyage II): The Greek word for “thought” is skepsis, and that word is the root of “skeptic,” “skeptical,” and “skepticism,” whose English meanings all have to do with a habitual doubting attitude, because the very act of doubt implies thought, whereas the opposite–clinging to an established orthodoxy even in the face of evidence to the contrary–implies a lack thereof.

  4. Lee Hart says:

    Well said, Jeff You have some genuine neural neutronium here.

    As it happens, I’m (re)watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. We just watched the episode on Kepler. Starting from a strict religious education, he fought all his life to make his observations of the universe fit into religious dogma. In the end, he decided that hard facts were better than comforting fictions.

    It was the beginning of the modern scientific age. Being first, he paid a very high price for his doubt; but persisted. We have it so much easier today. So it is disappointing that so many people still refuse to doubt, preferring to accept what they are told without question or thought.

  5. Bob Fegert says:

    Very good post!

    Important things to think about here.

  6. Stickmaker says:

    The essential core of the scientific method is to systematically question assumptions.

    It’s also a good idea when teaching science to point out the simplifying assumptions involved.

  7. Marie says:

    Good commentary. Making the kids read it. I think the current generation of middle and high school students are really running into very muddy water in their science studies. This attitude towards scientific inquiry merges together with the elevation of conformity in schools; I wonder how much it will stunt research in coming years.

  8. Rich Rostrom says:

    What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy.

    I have a different take. What I see is that starting in the 1700s there was a revulsion against revealed religion – in part because it was the basis of established religions, which were usually corrupt and often oppressive. “Enlightenment” thinkers became very invested in the idea of traditional religion essentially dying out.

    Thus one had the French Republicans establishing the worship of “Reason”, and Thomas Jefferson writing (after 1800, IIRC) that there was no American youth then alive who would not die a Unitarian.

    This revulsion embraced “Science”, because the knowledge provided by science was a handy club to beat religion with.

    So now there is a group or faction for whom “Science” is their stronghold against unreason or superstition; but you’re right, they tend to invest it with the same authority as religion.

  9. Lee Devlin says:

    Very nice article, Jeff. I have noticed that there are a lot of people who are devout atheists who feel that science proves there is no God, and they often don’t have the mental capacity to get through an elementary physics or calculus class and therefore don’t really understand science at all.

    And if anyone arguing with you starts going bat shit nuts, as you put it, they are likely to be wrong about whatever it is they are trying to prove.

    1. This is actually a heuristic than I follow very closely: In any discussion, the first one to get angry is wrong. In any discussion where some or all of the participants are angry, the angriest one is almost certainly wrong. The least angry one is almost certainly right.

      Anger makes you stupid. When I see angry people, I see stupid people. I may not say anything to you, but I’m taking mental notes. And so are a great many other people who live by this particular heuristic.

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