On The Non-Existence of Scientific Method
The Preface to Popper's Realism and the Aim of Science (1983)
A talk to a meeting of the Fellows of the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in November 1956.
“As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that scientific method does not exist. I add that I ought to know, having been for a time, the one and only professor of this non-existent subject within the British Commonwealth.”
There are several ways in which the subject does not exist.
First, because subject matters in general do not exist, just problems and the urge to solve them. As he explained in his paper on the roots of philosophical problems (in other fields), he regarded subject matters, fields, branches of learning, or whatever, as administrative units, for the convenience of university administrators. Problems do not acknowledge the boundaries between administrative units.
Second, “Scientific Method holds a somewhat peculiar position in being even less existent than some other non-existent subjects.” This is because there is a long tradition, from Plato and Aristotle through Bacon and Descartes to John Stuart Mill, that there is a method for finding the Truth. In recent times the aim changed to establishing the truth of a given theory and then to specify the probability of theories.
Against these objectives, Popper holds:
1. There is no assured method of discovery.
2. There is no method of verification.
3. There is no way to establish the truth of a theory or even its probability.
“What do I teach my students? And how can I teach them?”
He describes himself as a rationalist, meaning a person who wishes to understand the world and to learn by arguing with other people. “More especially, criticizing them; inviting their criticism; and trying to learn from it…I do not believe in the current theory that in order to make an argument fruitful, the arguers must have a great deal in common. On the contrary, I believe that the more different their backgrounds, the more fruitful the argument…The only things which the partners in an argument must share are the wish to know [more about the world] and the readiness to learn from the other fellow, by severely criticizing his views – in the strongest possible version that can be given to his views – and hearing what he has to say in reply”.
“I believe that the so-called method of science consists of this kind of criticism. Scientific theories are distinguished from myths merely in being criticizable, and in being open to modification in the light of criticism. They can neither be verified nor probabilified”.
Some of the things which he liked to criticize:
(1) Fashions. “These can have only one serious function – that of evoking criticism. Nevertheless I do believe in the rationalist tradition of a commonwealth of learning, and in the urgent need to preserve this tradition”.
(2) The aping of physical science. Especially by the “inductive” accumulation of observations and the quest for misplaced precision in measurement and the definition of terms. Simplicity and clarity are values in themselves, but precision and exactness are not (beyond the point that is required at the time). “I especially dislike pretentious terminology…What can be said can and should always be said more and more simply and clearly.”
(3) The authority of the expert. “By paying too much respect to the specialist we are destroying the commonwealth of learning, the rationalist tradition and science itself.”
“To conclude, I think there is only one way to do science: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem…(and) even if you obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children".