Monday, 26 January 2015

Who invented the scientific method? A response to a minor Monckton point.

This might sound pedantic but stay with me and you will see the larger picture.

Here is a quote from Lord Monckton's celebrated (cough) response to Naomi Oreskes piece in Nature about scientific consensus:
The celebrated mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of science Abu Ali Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen, is justly celebrated as the founder of the scientific method.
If you don't believe me, here is the pdf.  Treat with extreme caution.
A modern image of Al-Haytham

Here is a quote from the SPPI website:
Al-Haytham, unlike Naomi Oreskes, did not consider that consensus had any role in science.
Well, of course not, because at Al-Haytham's point in history the idea of even a group of scientists was non-existent.  There would be scholars and academics sending one another ideas and findings but scientists were so thin on the ground that there probably were fewer than 100 contemporaneous with Al-Haytham.  But that's by the by. 

Recently I came across a site on the history and philosophy of science written by someone who has more expertise than I, more knowledge that Monckton and a better seeker after the truth than His Lordship (or his factotum, Scrotum).  It is called The Renaissance Mathematicus and I have found it fascinating.  I found it even more so when I came across a post called Nobody Invented The Scientific Method.

I suggest you go over there and read the full post but one thing that pricked my ears up was this:
Aristotle, Archimedes, Ibn al-Haytham, Galileo, Bacon (both Roger and Francis), Descartes and Newton are just some of the more prominent historical figures who invented the scientific method. Makes for kind of a crowded field doesn’t it?
There's that chap, al-Haytham, that Monckton mentions.  The one he insists upon whenever talking about the scientific method.  But he's in with a bunch.  How are we going to pick?  They are in chronological order so that might help.  But there has always been a question in my mind, and having read reasonably widely on this subject over twenty or so years, there is something that the Renaissance Mathematicus and I can agree upon and it is in the very next paragraph:
The real problems start when one tries to define what exactly “The” scientific method actually is. In reality there isn’t any such animal. There are a related family of methods and practices that have been used over the centuries to produce, test and question scientific hypotheses and theories, not one single golden method. 
It is the major problem in the philosophy of science, in my view.  Lots of philosophers have tried to identify what science is.  Karl Popper thought he had the answer but he didn't.  His falsification is not the entire answer and for a long time he was wrong on evolution.  You might wish to know that Monckton, in his SPPI nonsense, likes Popper (well, he would because Popper is something of a libertarian, though that might be stretching things somewhat):
Karl Popper formalized the scientific method as an iterative algorithm starting with a general problem. To address it, a scientist proposes a falsifiable hypothesis. During the error-elimination phase that follows, others demonstrate it, disprove it or, more often do neither, whereupon it gains some credibility not because a consensus of experts endorses it but because it has survived falsification.
I am not sure I agree with Monckton here but this is not the point.  There are plenty of bits of science that have no hypotheses.  Lots of natural history is hypothesis free. 

Anyway, back to Al-Haytham.  If there is no one thing which we can say is the scientific method, there can be no one who invented it.  But why does Al-Haytham have any claim in the first place?

The Renaissance Mathematicus has an answer.  His answer is somewhat negative. 
This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) 
Now it takes a bit of searching and reading on the Internet to find the other side of the hagiographic coin that Monckton seems to have taken.  There are plenty of, mostly cloned, pieces that push Al-Haytham's claim to be the father of the scientific method.  I posit that Monckton doesn't have the historical or scientific understanding that enables him to be sceptical of the claims for Al-Haytham to be anything on the scientific method, other than that he had a quotable quote:
“The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them," the first scientist wrote, "but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. he should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” 
 Curiously, if Monckton had followed this, he might not have fallen into the lazy interpretation of the idea of scientific method and might have learned a whole lot more.

But Monckton doesn't do that.  He is very rigid about rules.  The number of times he whines about the behaviour of scientists, their supposedly transgressions of academic behaviour and so on, is immense.  I won't bother cataloguing any.  They are not hard to find.  Monckton has a childish belief that science should be done one way and one way only.  He clings to this Platonic ideal and when it doesn't come up to his standard, he cries foul. 

I actually began to write a different post.  I was thinking about explaining why fake skeptics are fake.  Monckton's love of rules is one way (just think his inability to accept that he is not, no matter how one looks at it, a member of the House of Lords, especially when the keeper of the rule book has said he isn't).  Fake skeptics (let's call them deniers) seem to think they are the referees in a game that is called science.  They are not.  The scientific method, whatever it is, changes, evolves and mutates as new techniques arise.  Is theoretical physics science?  Is string theory science?   Is astrology science?  Popper tried to deal with this demarcation dispute and didn't succeed. 

Just as art is indefinable yet we recognise it when we see it, so is science to a large extent.  It is not an algorithm or a single way of doing things.  It is a way of thinking.  It is scepticism with limits.  Those limits are defined by the evidence available.  The fake skeptic, the denier, do not see those limits.  Instead, they try to break them, bend them and twist them to fit the result they have predetermined.  And when that doesn't work, they cry foul.

Monckton doesn't understand the scientific method.  Now there's no surprise.  Now if Monckton wants to see what real scholarship can achieve, he could do better than read what I have been reading.

Sort of conflict of interest:  the author of the site quoted on Al-Haytham went to the rival school to the one I attended. 


  1. I was almost sure the scientific method was invented by Grog the Caveman (the tribe's witch doctor) when he proposed that people who are raving nuts babbling on and on about stuff no one cares about are best cured with a not-too-hard hit with a blunt object on specific location in the head. This lead to an intensive discussion during the celebrations of next midsummer as Grog, using this method silenced Bronk, who had lost his mind after eating too many fermented grapes. Sadly the description of the method was not too accurate and many lives were lost in the later discussions of who's a raving nut, and what Grog meant by "not-too-hard."

    Thanks for showing the error in my beliefs!

  2. Hey, I know The renaissance mathematicus, as in, my blog follows his and he sometimes re-tweets me.

    I wouldn't say that the scientific method chnages though; the modern period ha had quite a stable method, and proto-scientific stuff isn't the same. What pseudo-skeptics are is partly a matter of excessive rule following, so anything outside the rules is ruled inadmissable in its entirety, whereas a real scientist goes "wait a second..."; 9 out of 10 times the rules are still okay, but every now and then something new is found. Look at cold fusion, the real scientists said "Hmm, surely wrong but we'll just check by replicating it."
    You're right about the predetermined limits used by pseudo-sceptics.

    I sometimes have trouble communicating with people because almost every statment of fact/ knowledge I make has an unspoken rider, to wit "THe information in this statement is not warranted to be absolutely correct, and may be out of date", but either people get shirty that I don't bow to uncertainty all the time in my phraseology, or think I am not definite enough in my statements.

    1. I could not agree with you more. You nailed the point about rule following better than I did.

  3. "{Monckton} clings to this Platonic ideal" ... You're kidding, right? Plato said nothing about lying to Congress and everyone else. All this crap about his view of the "scientific method" is just to say "I'm the next Galileo" and consensus *must* be wrong.

    ATTP shouldn't have done a post on Monckton; it's demeaning. (And I shouldn't comment on Monckton posts; the right response to Monckton is always to point people as Climate Crocks, Barry Bickmore, and Jon Abraham.)

    But, good post.

  4. (1) You need to read more. Start here, page 184 of Robert Briffault's "The Making of Humanity." Joseph McCabe wrote of these discoveries as well in a 1937 or 1938 book. It picks up on page 188, and I suggest you read for at least the next 20 pages after that:

    (2) Obviously you missed this museum exhibition, which the National Geographic sells the catalogue for:

    (3) The exhibition homepage is here: The exhibition did appear in London in 2010.

    1. Of course I need to read more. I don't deny that. But I am not convinced that Al-Haytham deserves the adulation. Scientific scepticism certainly existed long before his time.