Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021

In a nutshell

What the book is all about is right there in the title! Well, sort of.

The book isn’t about the scientific method—since it starts by pointing out that there’s no such thing. Scientists already know this: if you try to reduce science to a single set of steps, the result will either be too narrow (leaving out scientific fields that do things a bit differently) or too broad (including approaches that nobody thinks are scientific). Science is too big (and too diverse) to boil down to a method shared across specialties but limited to science alone.

What the book is about is the idea of a single, shared scientific method. Specifically, it offers a history of the five-step method that is still taught in classrooms around the world—anchored by asking a question and then testing hypothetical answers to it.

The historian of education, John Rudolph, has shown how these steps were copied into science textbooks from the work of John Dewey—with a twist. While Dewey saw his steps as something science shared with everyday thinking, others seized on them as a way to set science apart from other ways of knowing. The rest, as they say, is history.

I set out to see where Dewey’s steps came from. What I found was a nesting series of debates, from Dewey’s study of children and stretching backward through experiments on animals to the work of Charles Darwin almost a century earlier.

The story I tell in The Scientific Method is about how the lines between the human and natural worlds, and specifically between human and animal minds, got blurred over the nineteenth century. All this blurring led to Dewey’s search for a natural history of thinking, shared by any organism with a mind.

The fact that this project ultimately produced, in the hands of others, an account of human-specific scientific reasoning—and not the naturalistic project Dewey had planned—is ironic, if not tragic.