History of the Scientific Method

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The history of the scientific method is a fascinating and long one, covering thousands of years of history.

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The development of the scientific method involves some of the most enlightened cultures in history, as well as some great scientists, philosophers and theologians.

As well as looking at the changes in the philosophy underpinning scientific discovery, we cannot forget some of the tools that make science possible, including library indexing and peer reviewed scientific journals.

From the observations of the Ancient Greeks and Zoroastrians, to the Hubble Space Telescope, the history of the scientific method underlies the development of all science and technology, and we owe our modern technology to some great and innovative minds.

It is a cliché, but we really are standing on the shoulders of giants.

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The Beginning of the History of the Scientific Method

At the time when the two great cultures of Ancient Greece and Ancient Persia were seeking dominance and fighting wars at Thermopylae and Platea, it is easy to forget that these two cultures also had a deep mutual respect, and traded ideas and knowledge.

Unsurprisingly, and fittingly, our history of the scientific method will start here, although we must point out that knowledge knows no boundaries. Whilst Babylonian, Indian and Egyptian astronomers, physicians and mathematicians developed some empirical ideas, the Greeks were the first to develop what we recognize as the scientific method.

Initially, the Ancient Greek philosophers did not believe in empiricism, and saw measurements, such as geometry, as the domain of craftsmen and artisans. Philosophers, such as Plato, believed that all knowledge could be obtained through pure reasoning, and that there was no need to actually go out and measure anything.

This does sound strange to us, but there were some good reasons for this; however, discussing Platonism would take an entire website in itself, so the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great source for those interested in learning more.

Aristotle, regarded as the father of science, was the first to realize the importance of empirical measurement, believing that knowledge could only be gained by building upon what is already known.

Measurement and observation, the foundations upon which science is built, were Aristotle's contribution. He proposed the idea of induction as a tool for gaining knowledge, and understood that abstract thought and reasoning must be supported by real world findings.

He applied his methods to almost everything, from poetry and politics to astronomy and natural history. His 'proto-scientific method' involved making meticulous observations about everything.

To study the natural world, he scrutinized over 500 species and, in a treatise about politics, he studied the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states, a mammoth undertaking and a direct contrast to Plato, whose idea of a perfect republic was based upon his idea of perfection rather than upon existing systems.

Aristotle's methods can be summed up as follows.

  1. Study what others have written about the subject.
  2. Look for the general consensus about the subject
  3. Perform a systematic study of everything even partially related to the topic.

This is the first sign of a scientific method, with literature reviews, consensus and measurement. The Greeks were the first to subdivide and name branches of science in a recognizable way, including physics, biology, politics, zoology and, of course, poetry!

In about 200 BC, the famous library at Alexandria saw the first introduction of library cataloguing, essential for any scholar conducting a peer review.

See also:
Aristotle's Zoology
Alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone
Ancient Medicine
Ancient Physics
Aristotle's Psychology