Francis Bacon And The Scientific Method Revisited

March 12, 2023 at 9:19 p.m.


For some strange reason, I was invited to be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the American Society for Quality.  My subject was The Six Thinking Hats, a method to obtain consensus during meetings and to include all facets of a problem prior to making a decision. The method incorporates parallel rather than traditional thinking.

I also spoke about the history of quality including the Shewhart cycle credited to Walter A. Shewhart (1891-1967).  Shewhart was the father of statistical quality control.  It is the basis for continuous improvement for manufacturing processes and products and requires (1) studying the data and deciding what changes may be necessary or whether new observations are needed, (2) carrying out the change or test decided upon, (3) observing the effects of the change or test and (4) studying the results and deciding what has been learned from the study. The cycle is designed for learning and improvement and summarized with the catchy title PDCA – planning, doing, checking and acting.  

I asked the attendees if they were aware about the similarity of PDCA with much earlier work in 1620 by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher. I thought it strange that no one in the room knew about him.  

During Bacon’s time, critical thinking was described as the hypothesis, experiment and evaluation process. His method linked the continuous improvement cycles to the scientific method.  Bacon’s method, as explained in his book “Novum Organum,” consisted of three main steps: first, a description of facts; second, a tabulation, or classification, of those facts into three categories — instances of the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its absence or instances of its presence in varying degrees; third, the rejection of whatever appears, in the light of these tables, not to be connected with the phenomenon under investigation and the determination of what is connected with it.

The process of observing, asking questions, and seeking answers through tests and experiments is not unique to any one field of science. In fact, the scientific method is applied broadly in science, across many different fields. Many empirical sciences, especially the social sciences, use mathematical tools borrowed from probability theory and statistics, together with outgrowths of these, such as decision theory, game theory, utility theory and operations research. Philosophers of science have addressed general methodological problems, such as the nature of scientific explanation and the justification of induction.

The scientific method is critical to the development of scientific theories, which explain empirical (experiential) laws in a scientifically rational manner. In a typical application of the scientific method, a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments. The modified hypothesis is then retested, further modified and tested again, until it becomes consistent with observed phenomena and testing outcomes. In this way, hypotheses serve as tools by which scientists gather data. From that data and the many different scientific investigations undertaken to explore hypotheses, scientists are able to develop broad general explanations, or scientific theories. The method combining mathematical and experimental techniques in employed in all of the sciences.

In our modern world science touches everything, shapes everything, tells everything what it is and what it may aspire to become. Science is no longer just a part of life, but has become the whole of life — as Bacon claimed it ought to be. It is widely accepted today, and has been for some time, that to know something as true, one must have the facts, data, measurable and quantifiable observations, and these analyzed scientifically. This is scientism, the exclusivity of natural science as a way of knowing. Were it not for Bacon, there would be no antibiotics, no plastics, and no internet, but there would also be no atom bomb, no strip mining, and no internet.  

According to David C. Innes in his book “Francis Bacon,” by any measure, is one of the “great thinkers” of the human race.  He was the father of modern science as a rigorous way of understanding all things and bringing them under control.  

Today, Bacon is widely regarded as the major figure in scientific methodology and natural philosophy during the English Renaissance.  He advocated an organized system of obtaining knowledge with a humanitarian goal in mind and largely credited with ushering in the new modern early era of human understanding.  

Further evidence of Bacon’s contributions was offered by the 19th-century historian William Hepworth-Dixon, his summary of Bacon’s contribution to human development is as follows: “His influence in the modern world is so great that every man who rides in a train, sends a telegram, follows a steam plough, sits in an easy chair, crosses the channel or the Atlantic, eats a good dinner, enjoys a beautiful garden or undergoes a painless operation, owes Francis Bacon something.”

Final Thoughts

Bacon’s effort to introduce us to employ the scientific method is no more than the search for truth.  He believed that by increasing our knowledge of the natural world, we also gain power over it.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

For some strange reason, I was invited to be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the American Society for Quality.  My subject was The Six Thinking Hats, a method to obtain consensus during meetings and to include all facets of a problem prior to making a decision. The method incorporates parallel rather than traditional thinking.

I also spoke about the history of quality including the Shewhart cycle credited to Walter A. Shewhart (1891-1967).  Shewhart was the father of statistical quality control.  It is the basis for continuous improvement for manufacturing processes and products and requires (1) studying the data and deciding what changes may be necessary or whether new observations are needed, (2) carrying out the change or test decided upon, (3) observing the effects of the change or test and (4) studying the results and deciding what has been learned from the study. The cycle is designed for learning and improvement and summarized with the catchy title PDCA – planning, doing, checking and acting.  

I asked the attendees if they were aware about the similarity of PDCA with much earlier work in 1620 by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher. I thought it strange that no one in the room knew about him.  

During Bacon’s time, critical thinking was described as the hypothesis, experiment and evaluation process. His method linked the continuous improvement cycles to the scientific method.  Bacon’s method, as explained in his book “Novum Organum,” consisted of three main steps: first, a description of facts; second, a tabulation, or classification, of those facts into three categories — instances of the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its absence or instances of its presence in varying degrees; third, the rejection of whatever appears, in the light of these tables, not to be connected with the phenomenon under investigation and the determination of what is connected with it.

The process of observing, asking questions, and seeking answers through tests and experiments is not unique to any one field of science. In fact, the scientific method is applied broadly in science, across many different fields. Many empirical sciences, especially the social sciences, use mathematical tools borrowed from probability theory and statistics, together with outgrowths of these, such as decision theory, game theory, utility theory and operations research. Philosophers of science have addressed general methodological problems, such as the nature of scientific explanation and the justification of induction.

The scientific method is critical to the development of scientific theories, which explain empirical (experiential) laws in a scientifically rational manner. In a typical application of the scientific method, a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments. The modified hypothesis is then retested, further modified and tested again, until it becomes consistent with observed phenomena and testing outcomes. In this way, hypotheses serve as tools by which scientists gather data. From that data and the many different scientific investigations undertaken to explore hypotheses, scientists are able to develop broad general explanations, or scientific theories. The method combining mathematical and experimental techniques in employed in all of the sciences.

In our modern world science touches everything, shapes everything, tells everything what it is and what it may aspire to become. Science is no longer just a part of life, but has become the whole of life — as Bacon claimed it ought to be. It is widely accepted today, and has been for some time, that to know something as true, one must have the facts, data, measurable and quantifiable observations, and these analyzed scientifically. This is scientism, the exclusivity of natural science as a way of knowing. Were it not for Bacon, there would be no antibiotics, no plastics, and no internet, but there would also be no atom bomb, no strip mining, and no internet.  

According to David C. Innes in his book “Francis Bacon,” by any measure, is one of the “great thinkers” of the human race.  He was the father of modern science as a rigorous way of understanding all things and bringing them under control.  

Today, Bacon is widely regarded as the major figure in scientific methodology and natural philosophy during the English Renaissance.  He advocated an organized system of obtaining knowledge with a humanitarian goal in mind and largely credited with ushering in the new modern early era of human understanding.  

Further evidence of Bacon’s contributions was offered by the 19th-century historian William Hepworth-Dixon, his summary of Bacon’s contribution to human development is as follows: “His influence in the modern world is so great that every man who rides in a train, sends a telegram, follows a steam plough, sits in an easy chair, crosses the channel or the Atlantic, eats a good dinner, enjoys a beautiful garden or undergoes a painless operation, owes Francis Bacon something.”

Final Thoughts

Bacon’s effort to introduce us to employ the scientific method is no more than the search for truth.  He believed that by increasing our knowledge of the natural world, we also gain power over it.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

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