The Politics of Method: An Interview with Henry Cowles

The Politics of Method: An Interview with Henry Cowles

“The scientific method does not exist. But ‘the scientific method’ does.” So begins Henry M. Cowles’s new book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey about the very idea that science could be reduced to a single set of steps. Cowles argues that appeals to such a method – “shared across specialties and teachable to ten-year-olds” – was an accident of history, emerging a century ago as scientists struggled to justify their methods and understand their own minds. What began with attempts by Victorians like Charles Darwin to write a natural history of science became, by the turn of the twentieth century, something “far less natural, but far more powerful.” Along the way, attempts to locate science “out there” in the mind (if not the natural world) linked evolutionary theory, experimental psychology, and early childhood education. Cowles gives Nursing Clio a few hints about how that happened (for the full story, you’ll have to read the book).

Tell me about the origins of this book project.

There are so many! The book itself is an origin story, which makes telling its origins enticing and tricky. Let me try three different starting points and hope they add up to an answer of sorts.

Like a lot of historians of science and medicine, I started out as a science major (and a pre-med). I sampled widely as an undergrad, spending time in both the lab (phylogenetics) and the field (landscape ecology). As I got closer to graduation, I was drawn into classes that asked not what science could tell us about “this or that phenomenon,” but asked instead how science works. Or worked, I should say, since one of the major ways this question got answered was by looking at science’s past, at the ambitions and anxieties that shaped a particular figure or fact. So the first origin for the book was a growing sense that science didn’t work in stable ways and that a history of efforts to stabilize it might be an important way to account for science today.

Book cover has repeating Penrose staircases as the background, with the title on a parchment-paper looking rectangle in the center, with the book title - The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey
Cover of The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey. (Harvard University Press)

The second point came while I was planning my dissertation. I found myself torn between histories of fields I had studied in college (environmental science and evolutionary biology) and a growing interest in psychology and cognitive science. What I realized, in that moment, was that the boundary between these areas, between the life and human sciences, was precisely the kind of place where questions about how science worked were being asked by the people doing the science. I zoomed in on a series of efforts in the nineteenth century to root the human capacity for scientific reasoning in new accounts of imperfective, adaptive cognition. Method, I came to realize, was where biology and psychology, nature and culture, animal and human came together.

But the third origin might say the most about the book’s final form. Writing in the wake of the 2016 Election, I found myself confronting new forms of science denial and new faith in science (especially in Silicon Valley, where I was on sabbatical). I realized that climate skeptics and tech start-ups often used the same tool to talk about what science could and couldn’t do: the scientific method. The “merchants of doubt” accused scientific researchers of failing to use the method, while science’s defenders charged skeptics with a failure to grasp it. This helped the normative thrust of the history I was telling click into place: by defining science in terms of a value-neutral method, the figures with whom my book ends had inadvertently set up our current impasse.

Why is “the rise of ‘the scientific method’ less a success than a tragedy” (p 267)?

Great question! If you’re one of the many people who sees “the scientific method” as what separates science from non-science (or pseudoscience), this is probably a confusing claim. So let me be clear: the successes of modern science and medicine (including our ongoing confrontation with the COVID-19 pandemic) are very real and very important. What they are not are products of one method. Why? Because any effort to define that method is always too narrow or too broad. Any such method is either so specific that it excludes parts of the scientific community or so general that it includes some non-scientific (if not anti-scientific) approaches. Not all scientists test hypotheses; some non-scientists do. If you want to demarcate science from non-science, you can’t do it cleanly with hypotheses – or falsifiability, or replication, or any other shared method.

But that isn’t the tragedy, or at least not all of it. To my mind, the tragedy is the “demarcation problem” itself: the fact that defining and defending science is still such an urgent issue. Don’t get me wrong: it is urgent. The organized skepticism around climate science and scientific consensus impedes our ability to act on the science we have. The tragedy is that so many have latched onto “the scientific method” in response. What we miss when we do that is the diversity and difficulty of what scientists actually do, not to mention the pluralism that is so vital to their success in doing it. The book argues that it didn’t have to be that way. The people I write about saw science as inseparable from everyday life. Gradually, that vision gave way to the idea of a method that distinguished science from non-science – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

I could teach a Great Books class from your footnotes: John Stuart Mill! Charles Darwin! William James! John Dewey! If you were to teach an undergraduate seminar on the scientific method, which of your sources would you have students read first, and why?

Henry M. Cowles, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan. (UM LSA)

Well, my first response would be that I would never teach such a seminar – for a very specific reason. I tend to teach classes on topics of immediate, present-day concern to a wide range of students: mental health, for example, and addiction. And it’s in the context of those classes that I introduce core ideas from STS and the history of science and medicine. That way, we can use insights about the social construction of knowledge or the politics of method to think through issues we’re all facing together. I worry that a seminar focused on the scientific method would draw students from a narrower set of majors and wouldn’t invite the kind of engaged presentism that topical courses loaded with the same insights tend to invite. So that’s the first answer.

But when I think about sources that embody the power and the peril of appeals to “the scientific method,” I think I would choose one that is decidedly not great – Herbert Spencer’s “The Genesis of Science.” I discuss Spencer’s totalizing evolutionary worldview (and its ardent American fans) in the middle of the book, and this essay really captures it well. When students engage directly with Social Darwinism, with science as a means of propping up racist hierarchies and economic stratification, they start to feel one of the major lessons of science studies: that claims to value-neutrality are always value-laden. Primed with Spencer as a cautionary tale, I hope they would feel empowered to question such claims when their politics are buried beneath the surface.

Your book makes clear that what we call “the scientific method” is just one way of thinking about thinking that emerged from a fraught “age of methods” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Which of these competing methods most closely matches your own approach to historical research? (On my best day, I’m a William James.)

Same here! If I went on even longer about the origins of the project, I would’ve had to mention James. From his earliest essays on psychology to the lectures on pragmatism and radical empiricism, his willingness to blur the boundaries between disciplines and to follow his nose are inspiring. Plus: he really had it in for Spencer! I would say that rather than propose an alternative to “the scientific method,” I would take the ethos of the age of methods if I had the option. The key is adaptability – a Jamesian keyword – within the constraints imposed by the world around us. Why constraints? Because as the reception of pragmatism in particular showed, there is a risk that by celebrating adaptability we forfeit the ability to stand up for what we believe in. A century ago, pragmatism was parodied as capitulating, if not complicit, with the status quo. Today, as we confront the pandemics of COVID-19, anti-Black racism, and police brutality simultaneously, flexibility is not enough. We have to commit. I like to think James would say the same thing.

What are you working on now?

Two things! Well, many more than two, but those are the big projects. The first is a history of habit. What I’m trying to do is tell a new history of political economy in the United States through the lens of addiction and consumer choice. Habit functions as a kind of hinge – between conscious and unconscious behavior, choice and compulsion, individual and social life – in our collective life, and I’m using everything from neuroscience and behavioral economics to religion and self-help to understand it. My second project right now is a history of cognitive science, specifically a history of how different mental states and functional capacities have been understood in terms of the tools used to study them. The idea is that we impose metaphors and frameworks on the mind without realizing it, and I want to trace how that happens and why it matters for science today.

Claire D. Clark is a medical educator and historian of medicine based at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine.