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Some science historians say the history of scientific method can be traced back thousands of years; as far back as 2600BC to be precise. It is from these very early beginnings that the scientific method has developed to the become the tool of choice for acquiring scientific knowledge.
Today, the scientific method is heavily based on experimentation and the testing of theories. This emphasis on testing and experimentation did not always exist however, and was often overlooked in ancient Greek Science. In fact it was not uncommon for ancient philosophers take certain statements or notions to be true just because they sounded or seemed "right"!
Aristotle's method of logical deduction provides a good example of the need for experimental testing. It is a method that we have inherited and although elements of it still remain important in scientific inquiry, today we know that it is not infallible and without limitations. It was for the most part however, widely accepted science in ancient Greece.
The method is based on a premise or statement; basically something that is widely accepted, and it uses a process of deductive reasoning to try and reach conclusions based on that premise. The idea is that since the premise is "true," the conclusions drawn from that premise should in turn also be also "true."
Aristotle's method of logical deduction works something like this:
Now consider the following example, which also uses the same logic:
As you can see from the simple example above, you can't just take something as fact without first testing and justifying its truthfulness. This need for testing and experimentation is what challenged some of the most fundamental notions in traditional Greek science and as a result came to play an important role in the development and history of scientific method.
Around 200 years after ancient Greek texts had been translated into Latin in the Arab regions of Spain, they began to spread throughout Western Europe. The writings in these texts were based on ancient Greek traditions and they were considered to represent the scientific and philosophical knowledge of the time.
In these early days, knowledge about the natural world was heavily based on ancient Greek traditions and the main role of the philosopher (scientist's were known as philosopher's back then) was to simply study the Greek texts that had began to make their way throughout Western Europe.
These philosophers did not add to the texts or conduct experiments to test the theories contained in them because these ancient writings were considered to be "complete!" The texts were seen to contain everything there was to know about the natural world and so it was thought that there was no need to add to them.
Although early philosophers had not yet begun testing the writings contained in the translated Greek texts, the progress of scientific knowledge did not remain completely stagnant.
In practicing their trade and making crafts, the artisans of the time were making technological advances and were adding to the progress of scientific knowledge. This progression unfortunately, did not always occur at a steady pace.
These ancient artisans followed oral traditions and did not generally record the skills and knowledge that had been acquired in an organized way in texts. What this meant was that the applied knowledge gained was not always passed on from one generation to the next.
Bamum Artisan: Courtesy of Amcaja on Wikimedia Commons
A series of challenges to several fundamental notions contained in the traditional Greek texts proved to be a turning point in the history of scientific method. These daring challenges were one of several catalysts for the scientific revolution and the period of scientific fervor that was to ensue.
One of these major challenges to ancient Greek science came from non other than Galileo Galilei. A man of many talents, Galileo was a specialist in physics, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.
In his famous Tower of Pisa experiment, Galileo was able to show that the speed of a falling body does not depend on its weight as had previously been esteemed in ancient Greek science.
Galileo's most fundamental challenge however, one that went against the stern teachings of the Catholic church, and perhaps had the most significant impact on the history of scientific method, came through his observations in astronomy.
Galileo suggested and was able to show that the sun is the center of the solar system and that it is the earth and the other known planets that orbit around it. Prior to this it was thought that the earth was the center of the universe and that everything else revolved around it!
This strongly contradicted the teachings of the church in that day; a big "no-no," and it almost cost Galileo his life. His observations were given extra credibility after they were later confirmed by Johannes Kepler; a German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer.
Galileo's works not only caused a stir within the church, but also contradicted traditional Greek teachings. This served to highlight the shortcomings of ancient Greek science and as a result, Galileo's works played a significant role in the development and history of scientific method.
One of the major accomplishments to come out of the scientific revolution was the radical advancement made in the areas of astronomy and mechanics. The other major outcome was the formalization of science as a methodology.
In the formalization of science as a methodology, Sir Francis Bacon and René Descartes clearly stand out. Although Bacon is generally referred to as being the "father" of the scientific method, these two men both played important roles in the history of scientific method.
Bacon was a gifted English philosopher. As a dedicated statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist and author, he played an important role in the advancement of learning.
He was bothered with the with the stagnation and lack of advancement in knowledge and he attributed this to what he thought was a lack of reverence for the ancient philosophers.
Kepler and Galileo were busy challenging Aristotle's notions but Bacon struck at the root of the problem; the lack of a uniform method for acquiring knowledge.
Bacon was highly in favor of the practices of observation and experimentation that had rose to prominence during the renaissance. He was not however, very fond of Aristotle's method of deduction as he viewed it as a mere manipulation of words.
What Bacon proposed was a method that called for induction. This is a process that involves carrying out repeated experiments. In so doing, Bacon thought that general statements could be made or accurate conclusions could be drawn and scientific knowledge could be advanced in a relatively short amount of time.
Bacon's method of induction works something like this: firstly inductions are made; experiments are then carried out and observations are made; more inductions are consequently made; more experiments are then carried out and further observations are made. And this process carries on-and-on until a high degree of accuracy or "truth" has been established.
Bacon had many misconceptions about nature, but what is important is that he believed that his misinformation could be corrected by future experiments. What he did was to urge scientists to keep a record of their experiments and exchange the data collected so that collectively, knowledge could become known.
Dèscartes, a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist also contributed to the development and history of scientific method. Where Bacon fell short was he did not place enough emphasis on the use of mathematics in scientific inquiry. This was to be remedied by Dèscates.
Whereas Bacon favored induction, Dèscartes leaned towards the method of deduction. A brilliant thinker and mathematician, Dèscartes' major contribution to the development and history of scientific method came through his use of mathematical methods in the scientific inquiry process. This he thought, would add an element of precision and certainty to what he considered was missing in far too many areas of study.
Dèscartes' other major contribution to the development and history of scientific method was to form a tentative summary of the scientific inquiry process.
In his summary, Dèscartes described two components he viewed to be important in scientific inquiry. The first was analysis, which he considered to be the way in which practical things become discovered and the second was synthesis; which he described as the theoretical process in which the same things that had been discovered could be deduced from first principles.
Thanks to the works of these great thinkers of times past, today we have the scientific method; a framework that allows us carry out scientific investigations that are capable of yielding accurate and reliable findings.
If you enjoyed this article on the history of scientific method, below are a few more gems you might also find interesting. It's all well and good to know how the various scientific methods that we use today came about, but what good is it if you have no idea how to actually apply them? The articles below will show you how you can go about applying the scientific method to your own experiments.
Gower, Barry. "New Methods for a New Science."Scientific Method: an Historical and Philosophical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Okasha, Samir. "Scientific Reasoning."Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University, 2002. Print.
Achinstein, Peter. Science Rules: a Historical Introduction to Scientific Methods. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004. Print.
Wyer, Mary. "A Brief History of Scientific Method: The Standard Story." Women, Science, and Technology: a Reader in Feminist Science Studies. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Craig, Edward. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.Gauch, Hugh G. "History of Scientific Method" Scientific Method in Practice. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
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