The nature and status of sociological research has always been an area of controversy. Thus it makes sense to understand a little about the nature of the scientific method, because until we can grasp the nature of science we cannot hope to understand how, or whether, sociology fits into it. Introduction
Why Popper? Since we have to make comparisons we need to know to what it is that sociology is being compared. A good starting point is the work of Karl Popper, particularly since he debunks many of the cherished common sense beliefs concerning the logic of scientific inquiry.
Science uncovers descriptive laws . These are quite different to social laws , which are prescriptive .
Social laws tell citizens what they can or cannot do, and clearly they can be broken.
A law of nature is not prescriptive but descriptive - it tells us what happens. Such a law may be true or false but it cannot be broken because it is not a command.
Scientific statements based on experimental and observational evidence (facts) were contrasted with statements of other kinds, whether based on authority, emotion, tradition, speculation, prejudice or habit.
Questions about the approach laid out above have been asked for a very long time.
The philosopher David Hume questioned induction , the very basis of the scientific method. He pointed out that no number of singular observation statements, however large, could logically entail an unrestricted general statement.
For example, the fact that the laws of physics have been found to hold good in the past does not logically entail that they will continue to hold true in the future.
The whole of traditional science assumed the regularity of nature - assumes that the future will be like the past.
It cannot be established by observation since we cannot observe future events. It cannot be established by logical argument since, as Popper argues:
'From the fact that all past futures have resembled past pasts it does not follow that all future futures will resemble future pasts.'
This means that scientific laws have no rationally secure foundation in logic, or experience. Although as Hume came to believe, we may be so constituted psychologically that we cannot help thinking in terms of them.
What Hume had shown was that pure empiricism was not a sufficient basis for science. Bertrand Russell simply argued that if the principle of induction was admitted (allowed) everything else can proceed in accordance with the theory that all our knowledge is based on experience.
Popper offers an acceptable solution to the problem of induction. He rejects the orthodox view of science and replaces it with another. His argument points to the logical asymmetry between verification and falsification. What it comes down to, is that we may never be able to prove a theory true (because of the problem of induction), but we can prove a theory false.
Popper also provides a further example of why pure empiricism is insufficient for scientific advance.
Most of the great scientific revolutions have turned on theories of creative imagination and insight.
science is not just about the observable - science reveals an unseen world of forces, waves, cells and particles.
The popular notion that the sciences are bodies of established fact is entirely mistaken. Nothing in science is permanently established, nothing unalterable. Thus...
What Science does based on 'truth' What scientists do is base decisions and expectations on the best of our knowledge and provisionally assume the 'truth' of that knowledge for practical purposes, because it is the least insecure foundation available.