Philosophy of Science

The scientific approach is best described as a process. Science is best described not by its output, but by its method (e.g., process).  What unites all scientific inquiry is its process of inquiry.  Science is a systematic process of developing theoretical structure, testing internal consistency, and empirically testing hypotheses.

The process starts with doubt and a struggle to formulate a question.  The researcher studies the literature, solidifies the question, and develops a hypothesis.  Empirical implications are deduced and tested.  The original problem is then clarified and the hypothesis evaluated.  This new information feeds back into the beginning of the loop, the hypothesis is reworked or expanded or changed entirely, and everything happens again.  Perhaps most importantly, the process of science is self-correcting.
Science is a process that develops in a circular pattern between theory and data.  Knowledge must be logically valid and empirically verified.   Scientists engage in the research process in order to evaluate a theory against these criteria.  There are seven principle stages (Nachmias and Nachmias 1987):

This is a self-correcting cycle that continually refines and advances knowledge.

As a caveat: most science doesn’t directly follow this neat process.  In addition, a single research piece will rarely complete the whole cycle.  Finally, the above process is implemented to systematically and empirically test refutable theories and hypothesis, while controlling for confounding variables.

On a meta scale, an argument can be made that paradigm development is an overarching part of this process, with normal science and revolutionary science cycling back and forth (Kuhn).

It is also important to mention alternative ways to acquire knowledge. These include:

  • Authoritarian Mode: those who are socially or politically defined as knowledge producers define truths. Examples include shamans, kings, archbishops, communists, etc.  This truth machine can only be altered by overwhelming evidence of the truths being false, or by political/social change.
  • Mystical Mode: Knowledge is obtained supernaturally by mystical leaders (prophets, gods, etc) or by revelation.
  • Rationalistic Mode: the total of reality can be deduced from strict adherence to the forms and rules of logic.  This school of philosophy was founded by Aristotle and championed by Kant.  Pure math is an example of this.  Its proofs are true and exist independent from reality.
  • Common Sense: this can include both “a priori knowledge” (that something is self evident) as well as knowledge from “tenacity” (holding firmly to a truth that you know to be true because you are holding firmly to it).

Kerlinger (1986) defines scientific research as a “systematic, controlled, empirical, and critical investigation of natural phenomena guided by theory and hypotheses about the presumed relations among such phenomena.”    There are 6 assumptions that facilitate scientific research, which also sometimes constrain its findings. These are sometimes called epistemology – or how we know (Dewey).

  1. Nature is orderly – Things are not completely random.  There is a pattern that can be understood in events and in people.
  2. We can know nature – The main application of this is that we can know ourselves, since we are part of nature.  There is nothing special about people.
  3. Knowledge is superior to ignorance – Knowledge has both utilitarian and intrinsic benefits.  This notion that people should always pursue truth is at odds with “closed systems” of absolute truth.
  4. All natural phenomena have natural causes – science examines normal cause and effect relationships, not supernatural phenomena or miracles.  Science is agnostic to those.
  5. Nothing is self-evident – tradition, common sense, and beliefs are not sufficient.  There must be objective evidence.
  6. Knowledge is derived from the acquisition of experience – instead of being based on pure reason, knowledge is gained from empirical tests of reality.

The scientific process hinges on these assumptions.  Interpretive approaches criticize this process because they argue that many phenomena are not orderly, replicable, or consistent.  Critics allege that without consistency the scientific process breaks down to some extent.  However, if these assumptions hold, then the scientific process accumulates a body of reliable knowledge that helps us to explain, predict, and understand empirical phenomena.  If someone believes that these assumptions do not hold, or if they do not agree with the nature of the scientific process, then they are free to develop an alternative approach.  No reasonable alternative approach has been proposed to date.

(Adapted from group and course notes)
(Flashcards and other resources here)

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