July 23, 2014

Scientific Method, Truth, Reality, and Objectivity

Are they really what we think they are?

Presentation made on April 22, 2003
Yeditepe University Graduate Colloquium
Istanbul, Turkey

A. Cemal Ekin

We are all social scientists studying social phenomena that affect the business world in one way or another. I would like to explore a few critical and related terms we use both in our scientific endeavors as well as in our daily lives. After the presentation, I do not expect you to know more than you already do but I do hope that you will have more nagging questions that seek answers in your mind. After all, science is all about finding answers to questions.

Science, in a very general sense, is the sum total of our efforts to understand the world around us. Since the humankind looked at the sky and saw things that inspired awe, our curiosity to know more about our world, our universe and our selves never stopped. As a result, we have accumulated an enormous amount of knowledge yet what we yearn to know is even greater than what we already know.

Science uses reasoning, both deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning typically starts with a statement about the general nature of things and proceeds to arrive at a conclusion about something specific. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, starts with many observations and attempts to arrive at a generalization. Deductive reasoning is a more robust method of reasoning but not always applicable to social sciences. In deductive reasoning, if the premise and the following statements are true, then the conclusion must be true. In social sciences, however, we typically do not know how things generally are and resort to using inductive reasoning. If I see many drivers on the streets of Istanbul who drive recklessly, then I may conclude that drivers in Istanbul do not obey the traffic rules. Clearly, this will not be true for all drivers who take to the streets in Istanbul. This approach to reasoning is inductive reasoning and is not as robust as the deductive method since our inductive conclusions are “probably true.”

As humankind showed interest in diverse things as the stars, numbers, making fire, eating herbs to get well, and so on, certain logical thinking patterns evolved into different branches of science that we take for granted today as astronomy, physics, and medicine. Together with these so called “hard sciences” we have also sought to know more about societies, about people, about how they create and acquire value, and these gave us sociology, psychology, and economics that we call “soft sciences.” Regardless of whether it is hard or soft, easy or difficult, all branches of science share some common traits mainly on their philosophy of studying what they study. They share a common methodological foundation called the “Scientific Method.”

Scientific Method

Scientific method is not a tool chest that contains a bunch of tools that we grab to do our work. Rather, it is a philosophy of studying things and its tenets are shared by all branches of science, it is a method of thinking. We use the term to distinguish what we do in scientific research from the coffeehouse discussions which are largely nonscientific. What makes an approach scientific is not the people who use it but whether the people adhere to some rigorous standards in their pursuit of knowledge and truth, concepts that we will shortly visit. We seek five fundamental principles in our research if we want them to be considered scientific:

  • Objectivity (another term we will visit): Science seeks truth (another term that needs to be explored) rather than to prove a particular conclusion.
  • Systematicity: Scientific studies approach their subjects systematically so that logical conclusions can be drawn and other phenomena, like relations, can be studied.
  • Reliability: The methods used must yield similar results (not necessarily identical) under similar conditions when studies are repeated. Replicability is essential in scientific inquiries.
  • Comprehensiveness: The necessary elements, variables must be included and unrelated ones must be excluded.
  • Precision: The statements, hypothetical or otherwise, must be precise so that logic can be applied to them.

In other words,

  • we see certain things happening,
  • we ask why they may be happening,
  • we offer answers,
  • we ask if our answer is true what else must also be true,
  • we conduct tests to prove or disprove our statements.

In all this, we must understand and accept the fact that we are merely proving that our statements “seem to be true” for truth is an elusive concept and what we prove to be “true” today may very well be absurd in the future. As we seek the truth we must accept this as a matter of fact since knowledge, based upon which we make our assertions, is not a static concept, and “truth” is not as well defined as we think. Trying to understand the meaning of “truth” and “reality,” which are two fundamental concepts in science, is like trying to grab a handful of Jell-O. The tighter we hold the more it oozes out.

Truth

In English the word “truth” can be spelled with a lower-case “t” or a capital-letter “T” with different meanings. The capital-letter spelling, “Truth,” refers to the supreme reality and the ultimate meaning of existence. In this form, the word and its meaning is based primarily on belief and often dogma, like the belief in a supreme creator, God. Some consider themselves to have found the “Truth” and others may argue that their “Truth” is a better one. It is not possible to reconcile this sort of differences using reasoning since their foundations are rooted outside logic and reason. Our concern is not with this supreme truth since with our meager minds we cannot pretend to understand such supreme things. Rather, we are concerned with the truth with a lower-case t that deals with something with which we can work.

The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language defines truth as: (Atomica, April 21, 2003)

truth (truth)
n., pl. truths (truTHz, truths).

  1. Conformity to fact or actuality.
  2. A statement proven to be or accepted as true.
  3. Sincerity; integrity.
  4. Fidelity to an original or standard.
    1. Reality; actuality.
    2. often Truth. That which is considered to be the supreme reality and to have the ultimate meaning and value of existence.

The definition is laden with other slippery words like “actuality,” “fact,” and “reality” which are accomplices in this conspiracy to hide the meaning of “truth.” For the sake of brevity, I will follow one of the definitions given above, “reality” which is implicit in the other definitions as well. But, what is “reality?”

Reality

Reality is a state of thing which we may or may not perceive correctly. The same dictionary defines the word as: (Atomica, April 21, 2003)

re