When people talk of science, they often think of scientific discoveries. We think of the discovery of objects (e.g. Herschel’s discovery of Uranus as a planet), certain phenomena (e.g. the Doppler effect), or the proposal of laws (e.g. Avogadro’s gas law). We discover something when we move from a state of ignorance about something to a state of knowledge. For example, in the early 19th century we did not know insulin was an effect treatment for diabetes, but thanks to Fredrick Banting’s discovery now we do. Is there a method to scientific discoveries or are all discoveries random?
The context of discovery refers to the conditions under which an individual makes a discovery.
Example 1 You are sitting in your apartment staring at your phone, waiting to hear from a friend about what you will do tonight (you don’t know and so are in a state of ignorance). It is 10PM and you get a text inviting you out for ice cream (you have made a discovery and are no longer in a state of ignorance).
Example 2 Frederick Banting was a young doctor, teaching on the side, who while preparing for a lecture and reading a medical journal, hit upon a hypothesis of how to treat diabetes.
In contrast to the context of discovery is the method of discovery. This refers to the procedure you (perhaps deliberately) employ to move from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. If what distinguishes science from non-science is the method it employs, we might say that science employs a special method for making discoveries. That is, science is an activity governed by a method that allows for the systematic generation of answers to questions (systematic method for discoveries).
Definition 1 (Systematic method of discovery thesis) What distinguishes science from non-science is that scientists employ a specific, systematic (rule-governed) method for making new discoveries.
The idea here is that if we follow the method of science, we can generate new hypotheses and make new discoveries in a systematic (rule-governed way).
Objection 1 Many scientific discoveries are by chance.1
Example 3 Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of benzene by looking at a fire
Here is how organic chemist August Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene:
I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.iii
Example 4 Fleming discovered penicillin while investigating staphylococci. He noticed that a petri dish was contaminated by mold and set it aside. After some time, he returned to the dish only to find that the area around the mold had eradicated the staph.
Example 5 Countless others, e.g. technological discoveries (vulcanized rubber, teflon, super glue, the microwave, pacemakers, Silly Putty, the slinky, etc.), scientific discoveries (that molecules have chirality,vi the smallpox vaccine,vii
Objection 2 (scientific discoveries are not random, they occur against the backdrop of existing knowledge)
Consider the discovery of insulin, which was discovered in 1921.
Discussion 1 If scientific hypotheses don’t come about by some systematic method, then we might be tempted to say they come about randomly or by chance. But, given the many steps involved in the discovery of insulin, does its discovery seem “random” or “by chance”?
Discussion 2 What practical benefit is there to being able to demarcate science from other non-scientific activities? What practical function does it serve? How does it help politicians, students, grant-awarding agencies, or scientists? (in answering this question, you are also pointing out the practical benefit of the philosophy of science!)