Is there a method?
( goals & non-goals for my models of design and science )

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D. 


    In an effort to improve our understanding and teaching of thinking skills, I have developed models for the methods of thinking used in design and science.  These models have two main goals1) to allow an accurate description of problem-solving methods, of what designers (or scientists) think and do when they are solving problems, and  2) to help students improve the quality of their own thinking by helping them master the methods used by designers and scientists.  The first goal is discussed in this page, the second goal is in Thinking Skills in Education.
    Although it isn't necessary for understanding this page, you may want to read about the "models for thinking" in An Introduction to Design and An Overview of Scientific Method.

This page is in two parts:
The first part — Methods for Problem Solving — was written in 2000.
The second part — Describing Science using a Flexible Framework — was written in 1997.

    Methods for Problem Solving
    I want Integrated Design Method (IDM) to be a "framework for action" that describes the basic actions of designers — what they think about and what they do — during the process of design.  It should show how the mutually supportive skills of creativity and critical thinking are integrated in the problem-solving methods used by designers.
    The methods used in design (and described in IDM) are flexible, not rigid.  To illustrate by analogy, think about two types of ice skaters.  The sequential actions of a figure skater are precisely planned and, if there are no mistakes, predictable.  By contrast, even though hockey skaters have a strategic plan, this plan is intentionally flexible, with each skater improvising in response to what happens during the game.  In IDM the "method" is similar to the goal-directed "structured improvisation" of a hockey skater.  It is most useful to view IDM, not as a rigid pathway to follow, but as a roadmap that shows possibilities for creatively rational wandering.

    Similarly, a model of Integrated Scientific Method (ISM) is a framework that shows the actions of scientists — what they think and do — during the process of science.  But since I agree with the consensus that no single method is used by all scientists at all times, I am not trying to define the scientific method.  Instead, ISM should be viewed as a way to understand the structured improvisation, guided by goals, that occurs in science.

    In science and design, there are no universally used, rigidly predictable sequences.  But there are basic methods.  These methods can be summarized in models, such as ISM and IDM, that help us understand the goal-directed actions of improvising problem solvers.

    The goals and non-goals of ISM (and IDM) are explored in more depth in the following section.

To understand the rest of this page, all you need to know about ISM (Integrated Scientific Method) is one simple concept:  ISM is a model that contains a number of components that are logically organized into an integrated framework.  Although here the focus is on science, the same principles also apply to design.

    Describing Science using a Flexible Framework

    My two goals for my model of Integrated Scientific Method (ISM) are descriptive accuracy and educational utility.  These goals are connected.  I want ISM to be useful for accurately describing science, so it can be useful for education.   { The goals for Integrated Design Method, IDM, are analogous. }
    For me, educational utility is the main goal for ISM, with the main audience being educators, curriculum developers, teachers, and (eventually) students, rather than scholars who specialize in the study of science.*  But descriptive accuracy is also important because it is necessary for achieving educational utility.  Descriptive accuracy is the focus in Sections 1-5 below.
    * The main components of ISM have been borrowed from contemporary scholars (in history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy) who study science, so ISM does not introduce any major new concepts.  But by providing an integrated structure for synthesizing a wide range of ideas, ISM offers a fresh perspective that could serve a useful function in the scholarly study of science.


1. A Problem and a Solution

    Can we construct one view of science that will be considered satisfactory by everyone?  No, this is impossible, for two reasons.  First, the empirical evidence of history shows that the methods used by scientists change with time and culture, and vary from one scientific discipline to another.  Second, even when describing the same events in the history of science, scholars may disagree about what happened and why.
    Therefore, the first goal for ISM — to be "useful for describing science" — must be interpreted carefully, to avoid the implication that it promises more than is claimed.

    The problem:  There is no single "scientific method" that is used by all scientists at all times.  And scholars have different views of science.  But if there are many different "scientific methods," not just one, how can all of these methods be described by one model?
    A solution:  Although it would be foolish to claim that ISM (or any other model) is "The Scientific Method," a more carefully defined goal can be achieved.  This is possible because different types of science, and differing views of science, can be accurately described (to a reasonable approximation) by differences in how the model's basic framework is elaborated, by filling the framework with customized descriptions for the characteristics of its components, the integrated relationships between components, and the balance (regarding relative importance) between various components.  Because my model of ISM has been constructed as a framework that provides structure yet is flexible — thus allowing variations in elaborations of its characteristics, relationships, and balances — this model can be used to describe a wide variety of actual scientific practices, and a wide range of views about how to interpret the nature of science and the thinking of scientists.


2. Views of Science, and Types of Science

    As an example of wide interpretive range, consider the contrast between orthodox views of science and the radical "anything goes" anarchy envisioned by Paul Feyerabend (1975).  Although most interpreters of science would use ISM's "external relationships with other scientific theories" to emphasize the importance of constructing a theory so it is consistent with other theories, this is not the only option.  The same element could be used to introduce the contrary view of Feyerabend, that scientific progress requires free innovation, with a multiplicity of diverse theories produced by postulating new theories which are incompatible with currently accepted theories.  Thus, we see the same opportunity, provided by the "external relationships" element of ISM, used in two very different ways.  Similarly, the "retroduction" element of ISM could be used either to emphasize the importance of proposing models that are consistent with known observations, or to explain Feyerabend's view that scientists should feel free to ignore this constraint by using "counterinduction" to generate models that are currently unsupported by (or even contrary to) existing evidence, because the powerful influence of a currently accepted theory can make it difficult or impossible to observe data which might falsify that theory and support alternative theories.
    By varying the characteristics, relationships, and balance of elements, the ISM framework can be used to describe different views of science (as in the paragraph above) or different types of science, such as the differing methods typically used in the current fields of astronomy, molecular biology, paleontology, elementary particle physics, psychology, and nutrition, or in the astronomy of 500 years ago.  These ISM-based descriptions could be analytically compared in order to develop a deeper understanding of variations across fields (for example, by comparing current physics and psychology) and time (comparing astronomy in 1497 and 1997) and views (comparing descriptions by several interpreters).   [note: one example of elaboration is my Tools for Analysis: Idealizations and Range Diagrams}
    Or a study of variations could focus on different cultures within the same field at the same time.  For example, in the 1960s-and-1970s there was fierce competition between three communities with different theories about the mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation.  A comparative analysis of the methods used by these three groups, each taking a different approach to studying the same area of nature, could be facilitated by ISM.


3. The Flexibility and Neutrality of ISM

    The flexibility of ISM is due partly to its multidisciplinary origins.  Because it was created by synthesizing ideas from all parts of the interpretive spectrum, ISM contains the concepts needed to describe divergent viewpoints.  These concepts include the cultural-personal factors emphasized by sociologists, conceptual factors for logically oriented philosophers, and idea-generating mental activities for psychologists.
    Another source of flexibility is that ISM can be used as an "empty framework" with blanks to be filled in different ways (with characteristics, relationships, and balances) to construct alternative elaborations of scientific methods. Because it can be elaborated in many ways, one model can be used to describe many methods & views.  Perhaps I just lack imagination, but I cannot imagine any reasonable view of science — one we should take seriously — that could not be described using the ISM framework.

    Thus, ISM is more than my own view of science because, with alternative elaborations, the same framework can also be used to describe other views, including a wide range of apparently irreconcilable views about what constitutes an accurate portrayal of scientific methods.  ISM does not argue for the correctness of any of these competing interpretations.  Instead, it is intended to be a "tool for thinking" that can be used to clearly express divergent perspectives, so their similarities and differences can be analyzed and articulated.
    For example, the ISM framework does not express opinions about multicultural perspectives of science, such as feminist critiques (Rosser, 1989) that science — including its educational practices and institutional structures, profession-related politics, thought styles, and theories — is significantly influenced by gender.  But the framework does include a category for "culturally influenced thought styles" where feminist interpretations can be discussed, and where a wide variety of opinions can be expressed.
    In the introduction, I say that the first goal of ISM is "to allow an accurate description of problem-solving methods."  Notice that instead of claiming that ISM should be an accurate description, I want it to allow an accurate description.  Do you see the important difference in these two claims?  And does "allowing" seem like a goal that can be achieved (and hopefully has been achieved) for the "empty framework" of ISM?


4. The Bias of ISM

    When discussing bias, it is useful to distinguish between the ISM framework and my elaboration of this framework.  My own views of science (as expressed in this website, especially in the SCIENCE, EKS-RATED, and ISM pages) are in the moderate mainstream of current interpretations, and are biased against what I consider to be "extreme" interpretations.  But the bias in my elaboration does not define the bias of ISM.  Or, by framing this statement in the format of a standard disclaimer, "The views expressed in my elaboration are not necessarily those of the ISM framework."  To illustrate the distinction between elaboration and framework, imagine another person writing an alternative elaboration of ISM — with different characteristics, relationships, and balances, expressed using different illustrations and interpretations — that is compatible with the ISM framework, even though it expresses many views contrary to my own.

    When examining bias, it is useful to think of the ISM framework as a language for communicating ideas.  A flexible language can express a wide range of ideas.  A neutral language allows an equally easy, accurate, and influential expression of all ideas within its range.  To the extent that some ideas can be expressed more easily and powerfully, a language is biased toward these ideas.  By using the language of ISM it is possible to describe all views, but it is easier to describe some views, so these are favored by the framework.  ISM is highly flexible, but not totally neutral.
    In addition, the mere existence of an element in ISM is an implicit argument that this element is considered an important part of science.  For example, the elements for "external consistency" and "retroduction" strongly imply the orthodox view that these are essential components of science.  Although these implications can be denied, as in Section 2 ,  it would be difficult for anyone to see Feyerabend's views in the ISM-diagram.  But it is easy to see the orthodox views, so ISM is biased toward these views.  This implicit bias is made explicit in my SCIENCE-page, which describes the orthodox views but not those of Feyerabend.  { Yes, this does show that in some ways it can be difficult to clearly distinguish between the ISM framework and my elaboration.  Earlier I claimed that "it can be useful to distinguish...", not that it is easy. }
    The ISM framework — due to its non-neutrality as a language, and its inclusion of some elements but not others — is biased.  Usually, however, this bias is weak enough to overcome, thus allowing ISM to be used for clearly expressing a wide range of scientific practices and views about science.  The educational implications of bias and flexibility, and why the inclusion of cultural-personal elements in ISM may be a cause for concern , are discussed on the "EKS-Rated Scientific Method" page.


5. Is ISM a model for a method?

    Is there a method in science?  The answer depends on a definition of "method."  If this means a rigid sequence of steps or an implication that all science is the same, there is no method.  But with a broader definition, the answer is yes.  However, this "yes" is really the answer to a different question, after conversion from singular to plural: "Are there methods in science?"  When the goal shifts from singular to plural, from finding the method to finding methods that are "variations on a basic theme," the search becomes more productive because there is a closer match between this re-defined goal and the reality of science.
    With this pluralized definition, instead of calling ISM an "integrated scientific method" it would be more accurate to call it a "framework for describing some typical relationships between activities often used in science."  But I will continue to use "ISM" as a convenient abbreviation, since "ffdstrbaouis" is too cumbersome for comfort.

    Scientific methods are flexible, so a model of scientific methods should be flexible.  Therefore, ISM does not try to define a single method for all science.  But ISM can be used to describe commonly occurring patterns, such as a cycle where observations are used for evaluation that is used to design experiments which produce observations, and the cycle begins again; during each cycle, empirical knowledge of a domain increases, and there is often a "successive approximations" approach to theory development by revision.  Scientists can begin at any point in a cycle.
    ISM can also be used to describe and analyze the complexities of timing that involve overlapping and interconnected activities, iterative cycles within cycles, multiple branchings, and so on.  But even though some patterns do exist in the sequencing of activities, ISM should be viewed, not as a rigorous flowchart of scientific activity, but as a roadmap that shows some possibilities for rationally creative wandering.


" fierce competition" is in the SCIENCE-DETAILS page 
"difficult to distinguish" is in the SCIENCE-DETAILS page 
"a cause for concern" is in the EKS-RATED (Debates about Science) page 



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