Chad Orzel wrote a column on his blog last week about James Blachowicz’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled “There is no scientific methods”. The Times article talks about how methods in science and those in, say, the humanities, are similar and then tries to make some point out of it regarding the validity of any thought.
Orzel uses an apt emoji (or is it kaomoji?) to describe the lack of a conclusion in Blachowicz’s article: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is particularly representative of a lot of research in the social sciences. There are two things Orzel’s article misses out on, in my opinion: firstly, it does not talk about the fact that such a practice of abrupt endings — that feel as if a closing inverted comma is missing — are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the humanities, and one that particularly disturbs physicists: vagueness. Somehow, most social scientists I have come across are perfectly satisfied with an answer that appears to point them in some meaningful direction, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the same argument is being understood by different people differently as a direct result of its being vague. The open-ended state of arguments (or the lack of a conclusion altogether) catalyses this.
Consider this sentence which Orzel also quotes, albeit for a different purpose: “If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?” The argument begins by stating that the scientific method is only one form of inquiry. The only logical next step is to state that any other discipline which uses the same scientific method must also be similarly reliable. However, the sentence itself seems to assume without any base that if the scientific method is reliable, then any form of it is also reliable. This may be true, but is still certainly not a valid assumption without some sort of context.
The second argument that I think Orzel should have made is once again aimed at the three paragraphs he quotes from the Times article, where Blachowicz says that that the reliability of the scientific method stems from the fact that “science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability.” And then helpfully warns that “quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.” Except this is only part of the picture.
The reliability of science — I can only speak for physics anyway — does not come from sheer precision of so-called “highly quantifiable variables”1 but rather from mathematics. This language (or tool, depending on how you wish to look at it) that physicists employ has an inherent logic to it in that the validity of every step is ensured by the previously established validity of each of its preceding steps. For instance, having proved beyond doubt that 1+1=2, 1+1+1=3 and so on, to show that 2+2=4 with similar “reliability” means one only need show that 1+1=2, so 2+2=1+1+1+1=4. Now this is a dull example compared with the concreteness and logic that maths is really capable of, but it was meant to explain a point to people of the humanities.
I particularly like this paragraph in Orzel’s post that quite sums up how we all feel:
As a scientist, I often find myself nodding along with the steps of the process to work something out, only to be left waiting for some sort of concrete conclusion about what comes next. There’s a comprehensive failure to build on prior results, or even suggest how someone else might build on them in the future, and as a physicist I find this maddening.
It is this idea of a logical building block where the stability of each block depends on that of the blocks that came before it is what physics and mathematics have that gives our results solidity. It is precisely this habit of using building blocks that prompts us to take a step back and look at the entire structure as a “therefore” as Orzel points out. To build an argument without some form of conclusion is to have a fanfare that awkwardly fizzles out halfway through.
This is all no different from asking a question and not getting an answer. The lack of a conclusion can be particularly frustrating. It is also why those of us in physics are often accused of over-thinking things while