Explain the development of the scientific method in the 17th century. How has scientific thinking since the 17th century impacted traditional sources of authority? Please give some examples.

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before the seventeenth century, knowledge was primarily based on observation and authority. Observation, of course, was a helpful tool for many aspects of life, including the sciences; however, often such casual observations were neither repeatable nor reliable. In short, they were unscientific by today's standards. This more haphazard and less precise method of gaining knowledge did not negate some of the findings. In fact, many of the things we know about our world today were learned, at least in part, by these early observer-scientists. Consider Galileo and his magnificent discoveries, many of which we know to be true even today.

Unfortunately, however, many faulty assumptions were also made during this time, including the concept of spontaneous regeneration, for example. And the use of authority as a source of knowledge was equally flawed. While every discovery and observation which happened pre-scientific method cannot be automatically discounted as false or inaccurate, the opposite is also true. 

One of the forerunners of the scientific method was Sir Francis Bacon. He was an advocate for empirical evidence gathered in an organized and scientific way, and he was interested in using the data he and others gathered through the experiments required by the scientific approach to benefit society.

Another great mind who influenced the scientific approach was Rene Descartes, a man who utilized reasoning and detailed analysis to approach problems and data. Together, the two men were able to dramatically improve both the technology and living conditions in their worlds.

The more traditional approach of accepting the authority of the church or of established philosophies such as those developed by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers began to wane in the seventeenth century and was replaced by scientific reasoning. Facts, observations, and repeatable experiments became the new authority, shifting the balance of power from other institutions (particularly the church) to the logic and reason. This is known as the Enlightenment, the forerunner to much of the thinking which served as the foundation for a new country called America, as discussed in the post above.

Because of the development of the scientific method, we no longer have to be dependent on other people or institutions for our knowledge about most things--at least in theory. This same scientific theory which gave such freedom to the world is now often held captive by political or other ideologies, since we know that a scientist's personal worldviews and beliefs can distort, color, or slant his findings. Two significant examples of scientific theories which are impacted by personal biases are global warming and evolution, both of which are debated by respected scientists and thinkers on many sides of these issues.

Nevertheless, the development of a regulated method of scientific inquiry has been one of the most significant developments in the history of the world.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From great philosophers, religious sages and mathematicians the science of natural laws has been able to evolve. An essential ingredient in human nature, the capacity to observe and reason, rather than simply suppose, allows for the empirical or verifiable and measurable study of hypotheses which, once tested, can be modified and improved upon until a satisfactory conclusion can be drawn. 

The Scientific Method explores the way in which scientific theories are formulated and not the science itself. It was the Enlightenment of the late 17th century which prompted philosophers to question tradition and build on rational, logical thought in coming to conclusions. Superstition had no part and Man's place in nature came into question. This period also, therefore, saw a greater compatibility between religion and science, as scholars and theologians cooperated and found mutually satisfactory ways to accept scientific progress without necessarily compromising religious beliefs and teh most traditional thinking. However, different approaches have always been controversial and even The Declaration of Independence of 1776, attempted to combine the philosophy of John Locke with the science of Isaac Newton. The Declaration therefore has elements of the Scientific Method in its reasoning and, using critical thinking, it introduced a model which would come to have huge significance worldwide. 

The Scientific Method requires a few systematic steps beginning with the obvious asking of a question the answer to which can be measured. Research is then conducted to present the most comprehensive answer or potential answer, whereupon a hypothesis or explanation is drawn up and tested. The findings of the test are then analysed and conclusions drawn after which the results are communicated. 

Much of our technology has been acquired using the Scientific Method and the continuing process of improvement. The wheel (from rolling stones), the aeroplane (from watching birds ) and so on where all observed processes which were adopted after research into the best ways to create them, develop and test them and fund them. 

caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Scientific Method, as we understand it today, was largely intact, but fragmented, during the 17th century. Many "scientists", if they could be called that by modern standards, practiced one or more aspects of the method, such as forming hypotheses or making repeated observations, but their discoveries were often limited by the complexity of what they were investigating; for example, Aristotle famously rejected Democritus's theory of atomism, and this position largely went unchallenged because a) Aristotle was famous and respected, and b) no one possessed the technology to see if atoms actually existed.

There was also a firmly-entrenched "scientific" nobility; again, Aristotle was often foremost. This was largely due to ancient ideas coinciding with and complimenting the religious attitudes of the Middle Ages; for example, Aristotle described the universe as a series of perfect spheres, an image which compliments the concept of God and Creation being perfect.

The changes in the Scientific Method acted to alter both our understanding of the universe, but also our understanding of where objective truth comes from. There was essentially a democratization of truth taking place, wherein power was being removed from traditional, authoritative sources, and being collectively "farmed" by a variety of citizens whose observations could be replicated by others. This pattern was observed in later philosophical and cultural movements, such as Romanticism, and by challengers of religion such as Thomas Paine. Paine argued that divine revelation must be experienced on an individual basis; it was not scientific or repeatable, and therefore could not be declared or imposed upon another who had not shared the experience. This led to religion and science basically trading places in our social heirarchy in the centuries to come.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Scientific Method is, indeed, a powerful tool for thought as well as for determining functions of life and the world. Interestingly, in his review of Steven Shapin's The Scientifc Revolution, one critic writes that Shapin 

...rejects any view of science as the pure pursuit of objective truth by disinterested human beings; he praises science as “certainly the most reliable body of natural knowledge we have got.”

But, of course, the human element always enters into any study, just as the Scientific Method was originally affected by influences political and philosophical. The great Greek thinker Plato knew that perception cannot be completely objective because sight comes not solely from the eye, but through the mind of the observer. 

“Change your statistical philosophy and all of a sudden different things become important,” says Steven Goodman, a physician and statistician at Stanford. “Then 'laws' handed down from God are no longer handed down from God. They're actually handed down to us by ourselves, through the methodology we adopt.”

With this human element, then, there is no absolute truth as alluded to in a prior post that mentions global warming and evolution. 

While perspective may not BE reality as Dean Kutz's character proclaimed, it certainly shades it. This is why Goodman says that the ¨P¨ values--what are considered the ¨gold standard¨ of the validity of statistics are not as reliable as previously believed by scientists. 

This new knowledge of potential flaws in the scientific method may, indeed, reflect this age, and age of skepticism, just as in other eras, there was the reflection of philosophies such as the religious condemnation of Galileo after his assertion about the earth.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The scientific method developed largely as a part of the changing philosophy of the Renaissance.  The Renaissance saw the rise of the philosophy of humanism.  One aspect of this new philosophy was that the world was understandable in ways that were other than religious.  This sort of thinking would culminate in the Enlightenment, which emphasized the use of reason in investigating and understanding the world.

As the scientific method (and scientific/rational thinking in general) became more established, the idea of relying on authority declined.  This began as ancient authorities who had been seen as the source of knowledge (notably Aristotle) were proved wrong.  This helped to cause a general decline in reliance on authority.  In place of authority, people came to look for scientific evidence as their guide to what was true.