Science's Methods Aren't Just For Science

Most people tend to think of science in one of two ways. It is a body of knowledge and understanding about the world: gravity, photosynthesis and evolution. Or it is the technology that has emerged from the fruits of that knowledge: vaccines, computers and cars. Science is both of these things, yet as Carl Sagan so memorably explained in The Demon-Haunted World, it is something else besides. It is a way of thinking, the best approach yet devised (if still an imperfect one) to discovering progressively better approximations of how things really are.

Science is provisional, always open to revision in light of new evidence. It is anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong. It seeks actively to test its propositions. And it is comfortable with uncertainty. These qualities give the scientific method unparalleled strength as a way of finding things out. Its power, however, is too often confined to an intellectual ghetto: those disciplines that have historically been considered "scientific".

Science as a method has great things to contribute to all sorts of pursuits beyond the laboratory. Yet it remains missing in action from far too much of public life. Politicians and civil servants too seldom appreciate how tools drawn from both the natural and social sciences can be used to design more effective policies, and even to win votes.
In education and criminal justice, for example, interventions are regularly undertaken without being subjected to proper evaluation. Both fields can be perfectly amenable to one of science's most potent techniques — the randomised controlled trial — yet these are seldom required before new initiatives are put into place. Pilots are often derisory in nature, failing even to collect useful evidence that could be used to evaluate a policy's success.

Sheila Bird of the Medical Research Council, for instance, has criticised the UK's introduction of a new community sentence called the Drug Treatment and Testing Order, following pilots designed so poorly as to be worthless. They included too few subjects; they were not randomised; they did not properly compare the orders with alternatives; and judges were not even asked to record how they would otherwise have sentenced offenders.

The culture of public service could also learn from the self-critical culture of science. As Jonathan Shepherd, of the University of Cardiff, has pointed out, policing, social care and education lack the cadre of practitioner-academics that has served medicine so well. There are those who do, and there are those who research: too rarely are they the same people. Police officers, teachers and social workers are simply not encouraged to examine their own methods in the same way as doctors, engineers and bench scientists. How many police stations run the equivalent of a journal club?

The scientific method and the approach to critical thinking it promotes are too useful to be kept back for "science" alone. If it can help us to understand the first microseconds of creation and the structure of the ribosome, it can surely improve understanding of how best to tackle the pressing social questions of our time.