The scientific method can’t save us — because it doesn’t exist.
Claims on television and Twitter notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “the scientific method,” no single set of steps or one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we face. Ask any scientist: what they do, individually and collectively, is too diverse, too dynamic, too difficult to follow one recipe.
But its nonexistence has never dampened the scientific method’s appeal. And now, in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the question of who is (or is not) adhering to the scientific method feels more urgent than ever. We want to be reassured that rules are being followed and informed decisions are being made as we battle the virus and its disease, COVID-19. Fictional or not, “the scientific method” seems to offer safety in unsafe times.
If science saves us, though, it will be because it lacks a single method. The novel coronavirus causing the current crisis presents a multidimensional challenge — to personal, public, economic and mental health. There is no single tool with which to confront such a threat; what we need is a vast tool kit.
Luckily, scientists know this. Science is about staying flexible, trying out a variety of tools as the questions we try to answer change before our eyes. It is a process, not a product. Supporting scientists in our moment of need should start with a better understanding of what exactly they do all day.
Ironically, this is the same goal that got us “the scientific method.” In 1910, the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey published a brief introduction to thinking in general, based on research at the Laboratory School he had founded at the University of Chicago. Called “How We Think,” Dewey’s book argued that teaching science properly meant paying attention to how children actually think.
If you paid attention, Dewey argued, you saw that children were already scientific thinkers — they were creative, they solved problems, they worked together. Science came naturally to them. Sure, the science practiced by adults was more advanced, with its own tools and specialized techniques. But at bottom, how scientists think is just how we think — hence the title.
Dewey emphasized that science was all around us and that was its strength. What mattered was that people were solving problems that interested them, that mattered. Teaching children chemistry would work only if students cared about the outcome; that was why he and his fellow teachers taught it not with chemicals in test tubes but by cooking with ingredients. The kitchen was a laboratory, a site for solving problems and showing students that science was all around them.
He also argued that science wasn’t exclusively human. Animals, too, solved problems by trying things until one worked. With cats trapped in cages and rats in mazes, Dewey and his contemporaries found the method of hypothesis-testing “out there,” in the adaptive behaviors of all sorts of organisms. It was about trying to solve whatever problems life presented.
Finally, Dewey contended that science evolves. Constant change is how organisms keep up with their environments; the same is true for science. Facts matter, but not as much as flexibility. As Dewey watched children learn to solve puzzles, he saw this flexibility in action. The students who were too obsessed with one solution, too committed to a single example, or who refused to work with others, often failed. It was those who were willing to guess and try, to bounce ideas off one another without fear of reprisal, who arrived at the surprising solutions.
Over time, however, we have forgotten Dewey’s message. In fact, as the historian John Rudolph has shown, it was a single paragraph in “How We Think” that made that forgetting possible. Authors in the burgeoning science textbook industry seized on a short summary of logical thinking in the middle of Dewey’s book and transformed it into “the scientific method,” a shorthand for what made science different from other ways of thinking. How we think was transformed into how they think.
But Dewey’s list wasn’t meant to be the scientific method. He advocated flexibility, not stasis, and saw science as a continuation of everyday problem-solving. Most significantly, Dewey insisted that science is social. No one, not even National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, can do it alone. As Fauci and others have made clear, science is bigger than one scientist, one country or one generation.
Pointing to the scientific method, which so many are doing with the best of intentions, misses the thing that gives science its power: scale. Science is too big for one set of steps — and too big to fail.
The phrase “the scientific method” implies something special, static and solitary. But the history of the scientific method as it emerged last century reveals something familiar, adaptive and social. Science is human, in other words, just like the scientists who do it every day. Reminding ourselves of that will help us better understand our scientists — and ourselves. Because thinking this way will help all of us, whether we wear lab coats. Scientists and historians, practitioners and patients: Our ability to address the current crisis may have everything to do with how we think.
Henry M. Cowles is assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of “The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey” (Harvard, 2020). He wrote this article for the Washington Post.