Imagine that you got a million intelligent, sensitive people of integrity with no scientific training or understanding. Say they’re imported from the 13th century and have never even heard of the methods of science. Give them a single objective to work on for a century: understand the human mind better. They were free to explore by whatever means they felt like, whether running double-blind repeatable experiments or dancing naked among the daisies. They could mine the literature of great novelists for insights, or sit in a cafe people-watching, or stay with uncontacted tribes, study the world’s spiritual teachings, drop some X, do some painting, raise a child, or just sit and observe their own minds. And any insights would be shared and discussed equally among them all, with no concept of a “correct” method. Surely we would expect that such a project would generate some cool and useful insights that could be used to help people.
Of course people applying scientific method have come up with helpful insights. But why? Is that because of scientific method, or because they were intelligent and sincere people trying to understand?
I see no reason to suppose that people just doing whatever they felt like would not come up with equally helpful insights. Perhaps even more so. If the hypothesis that scientific method is a specially useful approach for understanding the human mind turns out to be false, then surely the belief in it is a delusion that will hinder understanding.
I’m influenced in this by Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, where he argued that even in the material sciences, the role of method was not so much discovery—which happens intuitively—but post facto justification and persuasion. Rigid adherence to method prevents breakthroughs and stops progress in science.
Nevertheless, in the material sciences, the methods of science have undeniably produced results, regardless of their role in the process.
If I was to take the same group of a million people, again with no scientific knowledge or training, from the 13th century and said, “devise a better means of transportation”, they would probably think of some improvements in how carriages run, or improved drainage on roads, or a better bridle for a horse. But they wouldn’t be flying to the moon.
The claims to success of the material sciences is not just “some cool insights”, it is a complete and radical transformation of how we see the world, which has changed everything about our material culture in utterly unprecedented ways within a very short space of time.
There’s nothing even vaguely like that, not within orders of magnitude, in any of the social sciences. The prevailing wisdom, I think, is that social sciences are admittedly less rigorous and less successful than material sciences, but are making steady progress. But honestly I don’t see it, or I don’t see how the progress is because of method. In many cases the advances in psychology seem to be merely undoing the worst excesses of earlier pseudo-“scientific” ideas, like treating homosexuality as a disease, which would never have been a problem if they had simply applied common compassion and humanity.
I think the mantle of “science” is used in the social sciences purely to borrow the halo of prestige from physics and chemistry. Applying scientific method might help discover different insights than other methods, but I don’t see any reason to think that they are better insights.