Why I'm skeptical about the unique power of the "scientific method"

I like to remind my theorist colleagues that Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback, who invented the zip, made a bigger intellectual leap than most of us ever will
January 29, 2020
John Goodenough, 97, collecting his Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Photo: Shutterstock
The word “scientist” still tends to conjure up an image of an Einstein lookalike—an unkempt figure (usually male, white and elderly)—or else a youthful geek (also probably white and male) or, in 10 Downing Street, a “super-talented weirdo.” But when it comes to intellectual—as distinct from gender and racial—diversity, there is a surprising mix.

I have spent a lifetime in science, and realise “outsiders” regard it as an inaccessible world. But if they realised that our modes of thinking aren’t especially strange—and that one doesn’t need to understand the technical details to appreciate the key ideas—they might be more inclined to engage with us.

The sciences encompass a vast range of expertise and styles; they can be pursued by speculative theorists, lone experimenters, ecologists gaining data in the field, and industrial-style teams working on giant particle accelerators. Some aspire to write a pioneering paper; others a definitive monograph. Just like individual sports, each particular science has its methods and conventions. But while the fascination of the individual discovery may be what fires all our interests, it is wrong to imagine there is some singular “scientific” way of unearthing these.

Scientists are believed to follow a distinctive procedure: the “scientific method.” This should be downplayed. They proceed through similar rational steps as (say) lawyers or detectives in categorising phenomena, forming hypotheses, testing evidence. A related (damaging) misperception is that there is something especially elite about the quality of their thought. “Academic ability” is one facet of the far wider concept of intellectual ability—possessed in equal measure by the best lawyers, engineers and politicians.

Indeed, the great ecologist EO Wilson avers that to be effective in some scientific fields it’s actually best not to be too bright! He’s not disparaging the insights and eureka moments that punctuate (albeit rarely) scientists’ working lives. But, as the world expert on thousands of ant species, Wilson’s research involved decades of hard slog: armchair theorising is not enough. A great mind won’t get you to the top without hard work.

It’s important to realise, if you want to succeed in a scientific career, that only cranks and geniuses tackle the great problems head-on. Aspiring scientists shouldn’t swarm into the unification of cosmos and quantum, even if it is an intellectual peak that they would love to conquer. Likewise, researchers with ambitions will soon realise the great challenges in cancer research and brain science are often most fruitfully tackled in a piecemeal fashion.

In fact, harnessing scientific concepts for practical use can be a more daunting challenge than their initial discovery. A favourite cartoon of my engineering friends shows two beavers looking up at a vast hydroelectric dam. One says to the other: “I didn’t actually build it, but it’s based on my idea.” And I like to remind my theorist colleagues that Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback, who invented the zip, made a bigger intellectual leap than most of us ever will.

Odd though it may seem, the most familiar questions can baffle us most. Astronomers confidently describe black holes crashing together a billion light-years away. In contrast, our grasp of some everyday matters that interest us all—diet for instance—is so meagre that expert advice changes each year. This seems odd, but it’s complexity, not size, that makes phenomena baffling—the smallest insect is structured more intricately than a galaxy, and offers deeper mysteries.

Conventional wisdom says scientists don’t improve with age, and unlike other aspects of the caricature, there’s something in this. There are composers whose last works are their greatest, but few comparable scientists. The reason, I think, is that composers can improve through “internal development”; in contrast, science is an interactive endeavour and staying at the cutting edge takes continual absorption of new concepts. Hence physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s famous putdown for scientists turning 30—“still so young, and already so unknown.”

But I hope it’s not wishful thinking from an aging scientist to be less fatalistic about the trajectories. Admittedly, the young can assimilate new techniques more readily. But one can persevere with what one is skilled at—not scaling novel heights, but at least staying on a plateau. John Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-iodide battery, continues working at 97; he became the oldest ever Nobel Prize-winner last year. And there’s a second path: older scientists can offer societal perspectives. Freeman Dyson, also 97 years old, was a world-leading physicist in his 20s, but still writes lively books.

But some eminent scientists—including, I fear, two Cambridge astronomers from the past century who I won’t name—followed a third route into old age. They overreached, to the embarrassment of admirers, by diversifying into fields they were not familiar with.

It’s a consolation to practising scientists that in applying science, and distilling its lessons, valuable work can be done away from the furthest frontier. And we are all “lay” outside our narrow field—my knowledge of biology is mainly derived from “popular” writings. Arcane technicalities can flummox even specialists. But what’s important are the key ideas, and these can be conveyed to those with zero scientific expertise. Indeed, if non-scientists knew how many of us “on the inside” are outsiders from the latest techniques, they might be less likely to regard us as closed cadre, and more likely to study with us—and challenge our thinking too.