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From Scientificmetho


To what extent can perception shape reality? How much do our wants, needs and desires alter what is, into what isn't? What heuristic, or manner of knowing the world: empiricism, logic, meditation or prayer is best? And when we answer that question, how do we then justify our answer? What epistemological outlook, or justification process for ensuring we really know what we claim to know, is best suited to answer these questions?

Many would respond to this by taking a relativistic answer - stating that there is no one best way. That there is one way of knowing suited to one situation, and another way of knowing better suited for the next.

I disagree.

I think the answer to the final question is "the The Scientific Method"

What is the Scientific Method?

In his 1996 book, The Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan defined the Scientific Method as a blending of Skepticism and Wonder. We need to wonder at things that our senses allow us to experience, to involve our interests in them, in order to involve motivation in the learning process. But we must also use our critical thinking skills and be skeptical of what we find.

This poetic yet informative abstraction, has been Sagan's viewpoint for decades. It is useful in that it helps bring about understanding of the method without implying that there actually is one particular method.

"Why should there be the method of science? There is not just one way to build a house, or even to grow tomatoes. We should not expect something as motley as the growth of knowledge to be strapped to one methodology." -Ian Hacking

Sagan explains further the useful blending of wonder and skepticism here:

"In a way, science might be described as 'paranoid thinking' - we are looking for conspiracies in nature, for connections amon apparently disaparate data" Thus all proposed patterns must be subjected to the sieve of critical analysis (left hemisphere thinking). The search for patterns without critical analysis and rigid skepticism without a search for patterns, are the antipodes of incomplete science. The effective pursuit of knowledge requires both functions" and he makes this point more poeticaly in his 1980 television epic, Cosmos: "We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact." --- COSMOS 13 part television series - DVD

Yet still, some may ask: "What does it hurt to prefer comforting beliefs over "hard facts"? To this question, Carl would most likely answer as he did here:

"The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there's no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system. The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources." --- Carl Sagan in the COSMOS 13 part television series To those who would still insist that faith and beliefs are preferable, Sagan also notes: "If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness." - Carl Sagan, From The Demon Haunted World.

Carl Sagan is not alone in this call for more critical thinking. Numerous other scientists, philosophers, psychologists, teachers, and even politicians and theologians have also triumphed the scientific method as the best means of learning the truth about ourselves, in order to both enrich and safeguard our lives. As John Locke once said:

"The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it". John Locke -Some Thoughts Concerning Education, sect. 88 (1693)

And as George Carlin recently said:

"Barbara Bush has a slogan: "Encourage your child to read every day." What she should be doing is encouraging children to question what they read each day." - George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty, 2001

Of course, as Carlin implies, there are other reasons why people prefer faith to skepticism:

The business of skepticism is dangerous. Skepticism, challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including high scholl students, baits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs and asprin commercials. They may start asking awkward questions about economic, social, political or religious institutions. Perhaps they'll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be? - Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

Probably in a much better world.

See also: There is no single list called "The Scientific Method."

This site is part of Candle In The Dark, a series of interconnected websites devoted to philosophy and science. See also: and

I now forward you to the next section, on The Difference Between Believing and Knowing.

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