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Rethinking the origins of “the scientific method”


Henry Cowles teaches history at the University of Michigan. He is spending his year at the Humanities Center writing a book about the history of "the scientific method."

Henry M. Cowles is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, where he studies the history of modern science and medicine in the United States and Great Britain.

While at the Humanities Center this year, Cowles is completing a book that offers a new history of “the scientific method.” Cowles argues that the idea of a single, shared method that is (supposedly) free of philosophical and political baggage was a product of nineteenth-century evolutionary theories and their applications to psychology.


Q. What is your current research about? 

I’m writing a book about “the scientific method.” This is a simple set of steps that many of us are taught in elementary school—ask a question, make a hypothesis, etc. We put it on posters and in textbooks because “the scientific method” is supposed to set science apart by helping scientists study reality. Yet any scientist (or historian of science) will tell you that this isn’t how science actually works. What scientists do is often unpredictable and messy, surprising, and confusing. Yes, they try to be methodical. But actual science is impossible to reduce to a simple set of steps.

This raises a question: given how much we talk about “the scientific method,” why does it fail to capture actual scientific practice? My book shows that this failure is new. A century ago, “the scientific method” described everyday thinking, even by the nonhuman. Nineteenth-century psychologists made it synonymous with the mind itself, but grounding “the scientific method” in psychology paved the way for its abstraction. As the field became more instrumental and behavioristic, so did its subjects. That shift transformed “the scientific method” from a thick description of the mind at work into a set of steps that set science apart. 

Q.  How were you drawn to the topic?

Like many historians of science, I started out in the sciences and came to history relatively late. Having taken mostly science classes, I found myself drawn to what seemed like a simple question: what makes science special? The answer seemed to have something to do with method, which led me to the history of psychology. Around the turn of the twentieth century, certain psychologists tried to position themselves as experts on the nature of science itself. If science was mental, they argued, then shouldn’t they—as psychologists—be the experts on how it worked? The American pragmatists were one group who made this kind of argument, and the historian John Rudolph has shown that it was the pragmatist John Dewey who wrote up “the scientific method” as we know it today. I set out to pull together the threads of psychology, philosophy, evolution, and authority that led to Dewey’s list, to show how the special status of science has changed over time.

Q. Have any of your findings surprised you? 

All the time. That’s how a lot of historical research starts: little moments that catch you off-guard or violate one of your assumptions. One thing surprised me right away: scientific methods matter. Scientists and historians of science, myself included, often think method-talk is superfluous; it’s more important to watch what scientists do than to listen to what they say about their work. To a certain extent this is right, but I found in my research that these two things—saying and doing, theory and method—were a lot closer in practice than I had assumed.

Another thing that surprised me was the connection between certain ideas in the nineteenth century. I argue that “the scientific method” echoes the theories of natural selection and liberal democracy that emerged in the same period. Each “tests” something (hypotheses, variations, preferences) experimentally, and each explained progress (or some Victorians thought they did). Without resorting to a “zeitgeist” argument, confluences like this are hard to explain. I’m still trying to figure it out!

Q. Can your findings tell us anything about the relationship between science and the humanities today?

Absolutely. We can’t seem to get away from the idea of “the two cultures,” with the sciences on one side and the humanities on the other. I think this partly stems from public perceptions that “the scientific method” separates the sciences from other ways of thinking. Historians of science tend to be more interested in what unites science with art or religion than what divides them. And this is true of my own work: the history of “the scientific method” finds science in surprising places.  Some people saw it in art and poetry; others found it in children and non-human animals. Science was everywhere for a lot of the people. But that’s not to say the distinction didn’t—or doesn’t—matter. It sticks around for a reason: people really care who (or what) counts as scientific, not least because the dividing line can be used to discredit opponents or determine funding. The lesson to draw from “the scientific method” for thinking about “the two cultures” is this: watch how and when these terms get invoked, since they’re often used to claim resources.

Q.  Are there any other lessons to draw from this work?

One I’ve been thinking about a lot lately has to do with science’s authority—and how tenuous it can seem today. Historians of science have long been critical of that authority, but I think in the last year we’ve seen just how much we depend on it to address issues that matter to us, including climate change and economic inequality. In an age of alternative facts and “fake news,” a history of “the scientific method” feels regrettably relevant. It’s not that relevance is a bad thing, just that you want to be relevant for better reasons! This leads to a related point: in the humanities, we are trained to pick and prod, to question and doubt. But it’s also important to take the risk of proposing positive visions. If “the scientific method” isn’t real, what can we use to anchor truth-claims or resolve disputes? I think historians have a role to play in answering those questions. We can’t predict the future, but we can think imaginatively, and collaboratively, about what it might look like.