PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Scientists’ conceptions of good research methods

This poster presents initial results from an analysis of how methodological conceptions and rules are understood in scientific practice. The overall goal of the project is to analyze approximately 2,500 pages of transcribed interviews with scientists working in academic and collaborative environments about their conceptions of good research practice.

Our findings show that there is a considerable discrepancy between scientists’ statements about methodological rules and criteria and philosophical conceptions of proper procedure. This is not surprising in itself. Scientific practice is messy; the idealized methodological criteria and arguments that are common currency in philosophy of science are often not readily applicable to actual scientific cases. Scientists are not primarily interested in solving epistemological or methodological problems; they are mainly interested in doing science. Therefore they are rarely familiar with abstract philosophical terms and distinctions. It is thus to be expected that scientists’ methodological statements do not fit well with the terminology of professional philosophy of science and are not as precise and as well defined as a philosopher of science might wish. What is unexpected and surprising about the interviews is how deep-seated the uncertainty is about what constitutes proper scientific methods in concrete context.

We know at least since the days of Kuhn that methodological criteria for the assessment and validation of theories, models, and evidence are open to interpretation and that there is a degree of freedom regarding how to weigh those criteria in concrete cases. Our analysis of accounts of day-to-day research reveals, however, that researchers are struggling with much more than this intrinsic openness and uncertainty about methodological rules and guidelines. Not only do the interviewees offer different interpretations of methodological rules and criteria but they are often not sure where and how to begin evaluating the quality of their research. They are of course aware that norms and guidelines for “good science” exist, and they usually express their willingness and indeed eagerness to follow those norms and guidelines. But many have trouble articulating and explicating their methodological criteria, and, above all, they appear to be at a loss when it comes to dealing with epistemically and socially relevant features of validation procedures. This intrinsic uncertainty is visible across quite different scientific fields.

To address this uncertainty, is not helpful just to dismiss scientists’ own conceptions of good methods and procedures as irrelevant or as unsophisticated. What we need is a better sense of the kinds of methodological and epistemological concerns that the day-to-day practice of research poses. Our poster illustrates important aspects of scientists’ understanding of good research practice. At the same time, our presentation shows that philosophy can offer analytically useful tools for the understanding of scientists’ conceptions of validation procedures and of the challenges they are facing in their day-to-day research.

Author Information:

Nora Hangel    
Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine
Indiana University

Jutta Schickore    
Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine
Indiana University

 

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