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Bacon and Descartes

Two other figures are often cited as founders of modern scientific thinking: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Bacon is known for his emphasis on induction, the use of direct observation to confirm ideas and the linking together of observed facts to form theories or explanations of how natural phenomena work. Bacon correctly never told us how to get ideas or how to accomplish the linkage of empirical facts. Those activities remain essentially humanistic—you think hard (box 1.1).

BOX 1.1


There are two great epistemological approaches in all research: induction and deduction. In its idealized form, inductive research involves the search for pattern from observation and the development of explanations—theories—for those patterns through a series of hypotheses. The hypotheses are tested against new cases, modified, retested against yet more cases, and so on, until saturation occurs—that is, new cases stop requiring more testing. In its idealized form, deductive research starts with theories (derived from common sense, from observation, or from the literature) and hypotheses derived from theories, and then moves on to observations—which either confirm or falsify the hypotheses.

Real research is never purely inductive or purely deductive. In general, the less we know about a research problem, the more inductive we'll be—the more we let observation be our guide—and the more we know about a problem, the more deductive we'll be. Exploratory research is, therefore, likely to be pretty inductive, while confirmatory research is likely to be deductive.

When I started working with the Nahnu of central Mexico, for example, I wondered why so many parents wanted their children not to learn howto read and write Nahnu in school. As I became aware of the issue, I started asking everyone I talked to about it. With each new interview, pieces of the puzzle fell into place. This was a really, really inductive approach. After a while, as I came to understand the problem (it's a long, sad story, repeated across the world by indigenous people who have learned to devalue their own cultures) I started right off by asking people about my hunches. In other words, I switched to a really, really deductive approach.

It's messy, but this paradigm for building knowledge—the continual combination of inductive and deductive research—is used by scholars across the humanities and the sciences alike and has proved itself, over thousands of years. If we know anything about how and why stars explode or about how HIV is transmitted or about why women lower their fertility when they enter the labor market, it's because of this combination of effort. Human experience—the way real people experience real events—is endlessly interesting because it is endlessly unique, and so, in a way, the study of human experience is always exploratory, and is best done inductively. On the other hand, we also know that human experience is patterned. A migrant from Mexico who crosses the U.S. border one step ahead of the authorities lives through a unique experience and has a unique story to tell, but 20 such stories will almost certainly reveal similarities.

To Bacon goes the dubious honor of being the first ‘‘martyr of empiricism.” In March 1626, at the age of 65, Bacon was driving through a rural area north of London. He had noticed earlier that both cold and fire impeded putrefaction (Bacon 1902 [1620]:137). To test his observation, he stopped his carriage, bought a hen from a local resident, killed the hen, and stuffed it with snow. Bacon was right—the cold snow did keep the bird from rotting—but he himself caught bronchitis and died a month later (Lea 1980).

Descartes didn’t make any systematic, direct observations—he did neither fieldwork nor experiments—but in his Discourse on Method (1960 [1637]) and particularly in his monumental Meditations (1993 [1641]), he distinguished between the mind and all external material phenomena—matter—and argued for what is called dualism in philosophy, or the independent existence of the physical and the mental world. Descartes also outlined clearly his vision of a universal science of nature based on direct experience and the application of reason—that is, observation and theory.


Isaac Newton (1643-1727) pressed the scientific revolution at Cambridge University. He invented calculus and used it to develop celestial mechanics and other areas of physics. Just as important, he devised the hypothetico-deductive model of science that combines both induction (empirical observation) and deduction (reason) into a single, unified method (Toulmin 1980).

In this model, which more accurately reflects how scientists actually conduct their work, it makes no difference where you get an idea: from data, from a conversation with your brother-in-law, or from just plain, hard, reflexive thinking. What matters is whether you can test your idea against data in the real world. This model seems rudimentary to us now, but it is of fundamental importance and was quite revolutionary in the late 17th century (Further Reading: history of science).

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