October 1998

Disciplined Thinking: The Scientific Method

Science is not only a body of knowledge but a “way of knowing.” How science is different from other ways of knowing is the essence of the “scientific method.” Science is a way of processing information to get to the facts without the interference of personal biases or emotions.

To humans, emotions are the spice of life. Emotions give meaning and purpose to an otherwise boring existence, but emotions are not an indicator of truth and were never meant to be so. Just because an emotion is good or pleasant doesn’t mean the action that caused the emotional response is some form of “truth’.” Neither are bad or unpleasant feelings indicators for “lies” or “falsehoods.”

Just because you passionately feel, with every fiber of your being, that thunder is the result of chariot races by the Gods in the clouds doesn’t make it factual.

What about the other ways of knowing? There are only two other ways besides the scientific way. The first is RELIGION or belief-based. Religion is based on “dogma.” Dogmatism assumes rightness because of someone’s authority and not necessarily on that person’s use of reason and logic. How do authorities come by their conclusions? By what means were they guided? What may have influenced them?

A second way of knowing is PHILOSOPHY or commonsense. Philosophy uses reason and logic in trying to explain a set of circumstances. No empirical evidence or testing is required to back up philosophical explanations.

SCIENCE is the use of reason and logic, verified as much as is possible by empirical evidence and testing. This method not only explains systems, but also allows prediction of future activities of the system. Science is not infallible but it’s greatest strength lies in its ability for self-correction.

So what exactly is this magical way of science that not only helps strip away emotions and bias, but also helps potential shortcomings of one’s own conclusions to be recognized? This methodology, condensed into steps for easy teaching, is “The Scientific Method.” These steps have also become a good “checklist” to see if a procedure was followed to “good science” standards. The steps are commonly taught as:

  1. Observations and stating of a problem. All science begins with observations: observations of similarities and observations of differences among objects or events in the physical world. A scientist must clearly write down exactly what she/he observed. Questions about those observations become the springboard for investigation.
  2. Hypothesis. Hypothesis is often described as an educated guess. This seems contradictory to the essence of the scientific method–a guess being fraught with biases and emotion–however, a hypothesis is really just a focusing tool the scientist uses in developing an experiment. A hypothesis must be one that can be tested with some kind of experiment.
  3. Controlled Experiment. During the hypothesis step, a scientist will consider all possible things that may affect the system in which he/she is curious. These possibilities are called “variables.” Listing these variables requires thought, information gathering, and a study of the available facts relating to the problem or question. A properly controlled experiment will test those variables independently so that the observed effects match the proper causes. The exact sciences (physics and chemistry) use numbers to measure and calculate results while other sciences may use descriptions and inferences to arrive at results.
  4. Gather and Record Data and observations. Data are often plotted on graphs. Graphs can then be used to derive equations that are then used for making predictions. Data for soft sciences may be recorded interviews that are related to other interviews. The important part here is abundance of documented data. The more data obtained, the more solid the conclusions drawn from them.
  5. Conclusions. It is strongly emphasized that one must make conclusions that correctly arise from the data obtained during the experiment. Good scientists will also summarize any difficulties or problems they had and any possible sources of error. Many of these errors, suggestions and untested variables then become springboards for many more experiments. In this way scientific knowledge builds and builds.

A THEORY is a conclusion or “story” that covers and explains each and every fact obtained from experiments; it defines a system. Predictions can then be tested against the theory. If the theory holds, great! If the theory does not hold up during subsequent testing, then the scientific method not only allows for but also demands changing or altering the theory to match the new set of facts. Some people like Einstein are smart enough to jump the experimental step and go right to theory statements. But even the theory of relativity has had to stand up under the rigors of experimental testing since Einstein uttered it.

  • Repeatability. This is an extremely important step. Not only should the scientist re-do his own experiment to check the results, but all scientists have the free reign and responsibility to repeat the experiments and check the results against their own hypothesis and data. This repeatability step is an extremely powerful tool for weeding out biases and unfounded claims. Repeatability is the single most serious problem with pseudoscience, which literally means “false science.” Because the conclusions of those studying UFO’s, ESP and such are not repeatable under controlled conditions, those conclusions cannot be called “scientific” truths.

A theory that has withstood the tests of repeatability and has remained a constant over many years, can be elevated to the distinction of being called a LAW. But even a law, to a scientist, is not dogma. If contradictory evidence is found, one of two things must occur:

  1. Re-check the work that led to the new explanation. Most often that’s where the error is found, OR
  2. The law itself must be revised to explain those new events.

This is a rare event but has happened (e.g. law of gravity–Newton vs. Einstein). Theories and laws cannot rest on a supernatural explanation. The main reason for this again is that there is no testable evidence for any supernatural powers. And as Carl Sagan stated, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This scientific method or process has many built-in checks and balances. This helps to ensure that personal emotions and unverified opinions are out and only the verifiable facts are in. Scientific study has led us to a literal explosion of knowledge, to a more factual and predictable understanding of our physical world no matter how unpleasant some of those facts and predictions may be.


It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has the data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First get your facts; then you can distort them at your leisure.

–Mark Twain

Suggested Books:

Feynman, Richard. 1974. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Edward Hutchings (Editor), New York: W.W. Norton.

Feynman, Richard and Leighton, Ralph. 1988. What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Norton.

Shermer, Michael. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

–Brenda Wright

Image Building

Many people are intimidated by the academic aura that tends to go with humanism. They feel that you can only call yourself a humanist if you are sufficiently educated or clever to enjoy taking part in scientific debate and philosophical discussion. This is a grave mistake.

Humanism is about living: about living life well in so far as one can; about living and working with fellow men and women for the good of society, now and in the future. You do not have to be an academic to feel that these things are important.

There are so many ordinary, down-to-earth, hands-on humanists wanting to talk and exchange experiences and they do not get enough opportunity

We can expect to hear great speakers and powerful speeches. Let’s try to make these occasions memorable for all humanists.

(Condensed from International Humanist News, Vol.6, #1, by Jane W. Wilson, Vice President International Humanist and Ethical Union)

–Flo Wineriter

Some Limitations of the Scientific Method for Disciplined Thinking

The presentation by Brenda Wright on 10/9/98, entitled Disciplined Thinking: The Scientific Method, was interesting and provocative. As with most stimulating discussions, it provoked many questions, a few of which I wish to address. Some of these questions appear answerable at least in part using the scientific method as a guide; however, most of the large and small questions confronting most of us in our lives are unanswerable even with the aid of the scientific method and are to be decided using other devices or remain mysterious even to the most disciplined thinkers.

With respect to the scientific method as a guide to disciplined thinking, it holds out promises, many of which it is not capable of keeping. While disciplined thinking may be considered a worthwhile goal of any sort of thinking, the scientific method is a very limited helpmate in achieving this outcome. This is not merely due to the frailty of the thinker involved but it is owing largely to the inherent limitations. of the scientific method itself. Historically, Auguste Compte in the 19th century looked to the scientific method as the foundation of his Positivism movement wherein his disciples would all be bound by a uniform thought process shaped by rigorous “positivist” tenets. He even urged that the trappings of church rubric and ritual be employed by positivist “clergy” outfitted in ecclesiastical vestments rather than white laboratory coats. The logical positivists of the early 20th century such as A.J. Ayer and the logical empiricists such as Herbert Figal and Rudolph Carnap continued the tradition of Compte but wearing tweedy academic jackets with leather patches at the elbows rather than vestments. This positivist movement resulted in relegating most of the writings and thought of our classical writers to the dustbin of nonsense” in that most of their statements were not verifiable even in principle. In a word, their thinking was not disciplined by the application of the scientific method and statements, including those generated by affect or emotion, were mere grunts and postures.

To throw out most of the thought and writings of human history and discard it as undisciplined or even “nonsense,” is a directive which should give us pause. Have all these thinkers suffered from intolerable loose thinking over the past centuries or is there something wrong headed about setting the scientific method up as the preeminent arbiter of acceptable thought? Part of the answer may be found in the proposition that affect or emotions are to be excluded from the scientific method since they do not produce facts needed for disciplined thinking. This may seem plausible at first hearing, but is it really the–case? These so called “facts” which are supposed to be the building blocks of sound thinking are, in fact, produced from theories, hypotheses, empirical verification, experimentation and inductive/deductive reasoning. However, the initial selection choices of theories, hypotheses, experimentation, choices of instrumentation and definition of terms are not the product of the scientific method itself but are taken from various areas outside the province of the scientific method, including politics, economics, theology and the emotional dimensions of psychology.

Consider the question,” Can dogs think?” The scientific method is limited and helpful only after many non-scientific questions are answered such as selecting a working definition of “think” from a myriad of definitions available. One does not walk around the kennels of the world observing, doing experiments, gathering empirical data or subjecting the dogs to inductive reasoning to decide this question. Rather the answer given depends on the definitions selected and this selection process is outside the parameters of the scientific method. It is analogous to the demonstration of Kurt Godel in this century that mathematics is incomplete since it cannot select or prove its own axioms within its own system. The scientific method is similarly limited and incomplete.

Unfortunately, the scientific method has not been able to prevent various monstrous acts of human history and is not able to control either the thought process or actions of people. For example, in the 16th century the Catholic Church approved the conquest and subjugation of indigenous tribes resulting in the foreseen consequences of the widespread killing of these tribes under the prevailing arguments that the indigenous subhuman and could be literally killed like dogs. Ethnic groups of all kinds are also “cleansed” by means of organized slaughter based on definitions and premises outside the workings of the scientific method. These behaviors have been perpetrated by those who may be disciplined by the scientific method such as Nazi scientists but who select definitions and make choices not governed by the scientific method.

The same could be said for those choices we make at various junctures in the lives of humans such as questions of war, abortion or euthanasia. Can the scientific methods help us decide whether or not it is a fact that a fetus of 18-weeks is a human being and legally protected or is it a fact that the fetus is a proliferation of tissue which can be removed at will? Is it a fact that an 85-year-old person with senile dementia not capable of thinking can be euthanized if convenient by that person’s heirs? What about a 21-year-old person with an IQ of 42? These questions cannot be answered by the application of the scientific method no matter how rigorously applied. This is because the scientific method is incapable of generating the facts as grist for its own mill. It is a process dependent upon materials from sources other than itself. These sources are outside the universe of discourse spoken within the confines of the scientific method At this level, it Is parasitic upon other areas of human thought and discourse in the same way that the liar is parasitic upon the truth teller.

Any advantages seen in the scientific method such as a demand to replicate experiments are limited to its usefulness within the “micro-world” of the laboratory and its controlled environment along with its other inherent limitations. Moreover, predictive powers claimed by those working under the banner of the scientific method are tempered by these many constraints of our boasting. We may desire a fuller measure of disciplined thinking and the power which goes with it but the scientific method cannot give it to us. It may create the illusion of certainty with all it blandishments but it is simply not capable delivering on such a promise to bestow such a gift upon us by itself.

–Richard Cransle

Ms. Wright Responds

One of the beauties of the Scientific Method of Problem Solving is the inherent understanding that it can not and shall not try to answer all the mysteries of the universe including the workings and emotions of human beings. There are three methods or “ways of knowing”: philosophy, religion, and science. A true scientist would never undertake to answer any question that does not lend its self to the rigid standards of testing. In other words, if the hypothesis does not allow measuring, viewing or other empirical procedures, it does not fall under the category of “good science”. Therefore, science should not attempt to answer such questions such “Is there life after death” or “Do dogs think?” or “Is 85-year-old grandpa capable to make decisions?” Science readily admits its limitations and boundaries. If only religion and philosophy would accept theirs!

–Brenda Wright

Memes: The Building Blocks of Mental and Cultural Evolution?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Are there good reasons for supposing our own species unique?

“Yes,” says Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (further explicated in Thought Contagion by Aaron Lynch and Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie), “most of what is unusual about man, can be summed up in one word: ‘culture’…Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can rise to a form of evolution. Language seems to ‘evolve’ by nongenetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.”

It is our own species that really shows what cultural evolution can do. Besides language, fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in ways that look like highly speeded-up genetic evolution, but which really have nothing to do with it. Still, as in genetic evolution, the change may be progressive.

What is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. Is there any general principle that is true of all life? Dawkins doesn’t know but would bet on one fundamental principle, the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene is the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.

A new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face, and still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup. The new soup is the soup of human culture. Dawkins names the new replicator a meme, short for the Greek root “mimeme,” a unit of imitation. It is a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene” Memes are the building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life. They are units of information analogous to genes which transmit ideas instead of genetic information. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool, by leaping body to body via sperms and eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process called imitation. If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. If the idea catches on, it propagates itself from brain to brain.

We do not know how the idea of God arose in the meme pool. Very old indeed, it replicates itself by the spoken and written word, aided by great music and art. Why does it have high survival value? Because of its great psychological appeal. “It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.”

Just as we can think of genes as active agents working for their own survival, we might think of memes in the same way. Memes live in a computer, the human brain. The brain cannot do more than one or a few things at once. If a meme is to dominate its attention, it must do so at the expense of “rival” memes. Co-adapted gene complexes, such as a set of genes concerned with mimicry in butterflies, may arise in the gene pool and become so tightly linked together on the same chromosome that they can be treated as one gene. Analogously the god meme may become associated with other memes and thus assist the survival of each participating meme as in the case of an organized church, with its meme architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and a written tradition, a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes.

An aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey priestly rules. This is a peculiarly nasty technique of religious persuasion, causing great psychological anguish in the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective. “Unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display. The idea of hell-fire is self-perpetuating because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other’s survival in the meme pool,” explains Dawkins.

The story of doubting Thomas is told to reinforce the meme complex called faith. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of memes than a tendency to look for evidence. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry. Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves.

“We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines,” says Dawkins, “but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Memes: Science or Science Fiction?

As a devout humanist, I must protest the presentation (The Utah Humanist, October 1998) of Dawkins’ theory of memes a s though it were fact rather than science fiction–and that, too on the heels of a discussion of the scientific method.

Judging by that method, Dawkins’ notions are no more scientific than creation myths, unsupported as they are by a single shred of objective evidence to verify the existence of “units of information analogous to genes which transmit ideas…” But to build at length upon this unsupported ideas is to make kissing cousins of pseudo-science and religion.

The one factor above all that distinguishes humanists from true believers and philosophers is their insistence upon evidence. See Carl Sagan as quoted by Brenda Wright: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Neither Dawkins nor his redactor supply that, yet the piece, like religions masquerades as fact. The difference between what Dawkins thinks and what he knows should have been made unmistakably clear.

–John Hendrickson

Resources for Youth

Attention College Students and Studious Teens

Religious moderates and skeptics see that present day studies of Biology, Physics, and Logic are important factors in answering questions raised by religions.

Writings that can give insights into Religious Skepticism include:

  • Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
  • Complete Works of Robert G. Ingersoll
  • Atheism–The Case Against God by George H. Smith
  • Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker
  • Guides To Straight Thinking by Stuart Chase

Why should a young student read about religious skepticism?

  • Out of curiosity; look at both sides of the issue.
  • Love of reading and straight talk on religious subjects.
  • To compare his/her religion with religious skepticism.

Thanks to A.W. Lindholm of Terre Haute, Indiana for pursuing the concept of recruiting thinking young people to the humanist cause.