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Beyond Methods and Goals

Science is unusual in giving credit both for advancing crazy new ideas, and for shooting down those kinds of ideas. As long as new ideas are well formulated, testable, and not yet ruled out, they are welcome. And any success in showing existing ideas to be wrong is appreciated. In that sense, science is at the same time radically progressive and utterly conservative. I believe that it is a healthy balance between those two opposing tendencies that has allowed science to remain alive and vigorous for a dozen generations, an amazingly remarkable feat, for which I know no counterpart among human enterprises.

So science is driven by a dynamic balance between being playfully receptive to new ideas and at the same time having a strict and severe form of quality control. In this dynamic process, everything is up for grabs: tentative goals shift all the time, this trick is tried and that, and there is no fixed or holy procedure, a deviation from which would be forbidden or considered blasphemous. On the contrary, science is intrinsically opportunistic, and always ready to change its methods -- not whimsically, but only if there seems to be no alternative, when other options seem to have been exhausted.

We normally distinguish between pure and applied science. Applied science is driven by the desire to reach specified goals, whereas pure science in contrast is driven by curiosity, without a prescribed or expected goal. In terms of a dichotomy between methods and goals, or means and ends, pure science is guided by methods, rather than by goals. But stating it in that way is only an approximation. In fact, pure science is more pure than that: it is ready to sacrifice existing notions of methods as readily as preconceived goals, if a strong enough need is felt. A prime example is quantum mechanics, where even the existing notions of causality and reproducibility were given up, at least as understood until then; they were replaced by considerably altered versions with the same name.

Why do we get the impression that pure science is based on given methods? There are probably many reasons. Professional philosophers of science love to find explanations after the fact of why science is so successful. Constructing stories about THE scientific method is certainly an interesting challenge.

Scientists themselves are probably equally guilty at painting an overly simplistic and sanitized version of how they carry out their own research. The real dirty aspects of how science is conducted amount to something that is generally confined to the kitchen and not shown in the restaurant where science is served up for general consumption.

Yet another reason may well be that science had to defend its own reasons for existing, in its first few centuries, until it reached a brief hegemony in the middle of the twentieth century, lasting a few decades. During the earlier centuries, until 1950 or so, it would not have helped scientists if they would have loudly proclaimed to be engaged in an opportunistic enterprise in which everything was always up for grabs. In fact, it was through the eyes of sociologists of science that such an impression was first broadcast, in the late twentieth century, and to the dismay of many traditional scientists.

Given this situation, that science at its best is neither bound by goals nor by methods, I suggest that we rethink the way in which science can inspire other ways of knowing and other ways of coping with uncertainty, in culture and politics and other areas of contemporary concern. During the period of modernity, a sanitized version of pure science was dished up that seemed to revolve around an indubitable method; and this was what served as inspiration for capitalism and communism alike. During the current period, for which we don't have a positive name yet, following modernity, we may want to try a more honest version of pure science as a source of inspiration, one that revolves around playful tinkering.

Of course, it is totally against the Zeitgeist to suggest that science could provide any role model for any area outside its own purview. So perhaps we could start from the other end. We are facing an enormous challenge in this age of globalization. On the one hand, we don't want to fall back on Eurocentric forms of neocolonial ways of thinking. We want to give room for broad forms of plurality. And yet, we also have a need for something to rally around, for some type of core, some form of core values, really. The alternative for having core values would be forms of `everything goes' and `everyone fending for him/herself.'

I suggest that a core value could be a healthy balance between progressive willingness to consider any new idea and conservative willingness to thoroughly test any new idea and discard it if it does not pass the tests. Formulating it in this way, I effectively propose that the method of science, real science in the way it really works, could form a useful role model for the question of how to approach the contemporary challenge of defining ethics in a period of globalization.

Acknowledgment: some of these ideas were developed during stimulating discussions with Paul Forman, historian of physics and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Piet, 5/30/06.

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