“The Limits of Science” About the scientific method and its impact, applying it to the human sciences

Longer read but really thoughtful discussion of the scientific method and its limits but also reflects on the extent to which we can know about things the closer we get to them and the more information we can gather. Some interesting passages quoted below.


“The closer we get to our subject and the more we know, however, the more the scientific method breaks down. An astronomer can feel comfortable calling a faraway star’s path a line, even though it may curve out there at the edge of the universe; he can assume the scientific method has revealed the truth, and it will likely never be disproven. But as a doctor, I can’t focus on a few facts to the exclusion of others, for life is the level on which I work. In the operating room, I see people react differently to anesthesia all the time; I see lines become curves. I see a patient’s facial expression convey more than a supposedly objective measurement. I see the chaos of a dappled skin pattern convey more accurate information than what the scientific method has built out of carefully isolated details.

“And though there is a great deal of variety in how human bodies react, it is nothing compared to the variety and unpredictability of human behavior. This is the level on which social scientists, human scientists, and psychologists work, and, unlike faraway stars, human life is something that we know a lot about. For every one observation made about stars, poets and philosophers have made millions about people’s habits, behaviors, and feelings. All people, expertly trained and uneducated alike, are intimately familiar with life. This is why the scientific method works so poorly on the level of life. Compared to astronomy, we see so much more. We know so many more details, and therefore we can watch the scientific method go wrong.

Today’s revolutionaries, on the other hand, sometimes exhibit a misplaced confidence in the scientific method, believing that they can isolate human variables and apply their concepts in unreal situations. In their case, reality always hits back.

Practitioners of various disciplines in the 20th century knew the facts of life were vast and unmanageable and variable from person to person, but rather than satisfying themselves with groping for life’s answers through the veil of that reality, as previous generations had done, they used the scientific method to wander outward, seeking something definite and universal in abstraction. Rather than accept life’s complexities, they created concepts devoid of the imperfect human element. Rather than use generalizations merely to organize their thoughts, they credited their abstract concepts with a positive and authoritative existence, as an actual representation of facts.

Our society’s obsession with a certain idea of science has resulted in the popular prejudice that the scientific method is the mark of a thinking person, and that those who question its conclusions are “anti-science” or “deniers” of science. At the very least, people feel inclined to give the findings of neuroscience, psychology, social science, and human science the benefit of the doubt as these disciplines gain more influence over our lives.

But in the process, we neglect their limits.

In the hard sciences, this defect is worth it. But as the scientific method creeps into the human realm, the desire to be objective, to empty facts of feeling, demands the abandonment of the senses as well as the emotional and spiritual realms of the human person. Trying to create a purely intellectual representation of the cosmos is one thing; trying to create a purely intellectual representation of human beings is quite another.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s