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The scaffolding problem in early stage science

Part of the success of science comes from the creation and use of scientific instruments. Yet, before you can make good use of any new scientific instrument, you have to first solve what I’m going to call the “scaffolding problem.”

A scientific instrument is, broadly speaking, any device or tool that you can use to study the world. At the most abstract level, the way a scientific instrument works is that it interacts with the world in some way resulting in a change in its state. You then study the change in the instrument’s state as a way of learning about the world.

For example, imagine you want to use a thermometer to learn the temperature of a cup of water. Instead of studying the water directly, what the thermometer lets you do is study the thermometer itself to learn the temperature instead of studying the water directly. For a device as well-calibrated as a modern thermometer, this works extremely well.

Now imagine you’ve invented some new scientific instrument and you want to figure out whether it works. How would you go about doing that? This is a surprisingly difficult problem.

Here’s an abstract way of stating it:

  1. We want to learn about some phenomenon, X.
  2. X is not directly observable, so we infer it from some other phenomenon, Y.
  3. If we want to know if Y tells us about X, we cannot use Y itself, we must use some other phenomenon, Z.
  4. If Z is supposed to tell us about X, then either: 4a) There’s no need to infer X from Y, we should just infer it from Z OR 4b) We have to explain why we can infer X from Z, which repeats this problem

To understand the problem, take the case of the thermometer. If we have the world’s first thermometer what we want to know is whether the thermometer tells us about the temperature. But, to do that we need to know the temperature. But if we knew the temperature there wouldn’t be a need to invent a thermometer in the first place.

Given that we have scientific instruments like thermometers, you can guess that there is a solution to this problem. But, the solution is tricky and takes careful triangulation between multiple methods of studying the phenomenon, none of which you totally trust.

I plan to write more on this and how the scaffolding process works in the future

This was quite an interesting point I hadn't considered before. Looking forward to reading more.

Is there a "scientific method"?

If you learned about science in school, or read the Wikipedia page on the scientific method, you might have encountered the idea that there is a single thing called “The Scientific Method.” Different formulations of the scientific method are described differently, but it involves generating hypotheses, making predictions, running experiments, evaluating the results and then submitting them for peer review.

The idea is that all scientists follow something like this method.

The idea of there being a “scientific method” exists for some reason, but it’s probably not because this corresponds to the reality of actual science. This description from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the scientific methodology is helpful:

”[t]he issue which has shaped debates over scientific method the most in the last half century is the question of how pluralist do we need to be about method? Unificationists continue to hold out for one method essential to science; nihilism is a form of radical pluralism ... Some middle degree of pluralism regarding the methods embodied in scientific practice seems appropriate.”

Similarly, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg said:

”The fact that the standards of scientific success shift with time does not only make the philosophy of science difficult; it also raises problems for the public understanding of science. We do not have a fixed scientific method to rally around and defend.”

This suggests that the mainstream view amongst those who seriously study the scientific method is that there isn’t a single method that comprises science, but that there are a variety of methods and the question is how many different methods to include.

This is weird.

Why is the public discussion about the scientific method so out-of-touch with the reality of science? My best guess is that public discussions of the scientific method are doing three different things:

  1. Governance

Scientific knowledge is afforded tremendous power and respect. For proponents of the ideology, it’s important to explain the source of the mandate for that power and respect and what it means for individuals. This includes distinguishing science from non-science, explaining why science is special and explaining why you should trust science.

The idea of “The Scientific Method” is useful for this governance function.

  1. Transmission of Culture

One component of the success of science is the scientific culture. Those involved in science have an approach to understanding the world that is careful, rigorous, and open to new evidence. Presenting a “Scientific Method” is a useful way of transmitting the careful rigorous nature of the scientific culture even if no singular method exists.

  1. Epistemology

Finally, some discussions of The Scientific Method contain claims about how one ought to come to understand the world.

Where the public discussion on scientific methodology is doing 1) or 2), it will make for bad epistemology. Unfortunately, I think much of the public discourse is doing 1) and 2). For this reason, I think it’s best to mostly ignore the public conversation on scientific methodology and whatever they taught you in school if you want to understand how to gain knowledge about the world.

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