Where is the Philosophy of Science in Research Methodology?

I was recently speaking to a (deservedly) famous and prominent UK academic about a meeting on research methodology. We were to invite mathematicians and sociologists; statisticians and psychologists; epidemiologists and economists. All the subjects cognate to applied health research were included – save one. When I suggested that we include the philosophy of science, my interlocutor was dismissive to the point of ridicule. As I said, he was a very senior fellow and I did not wish to annoy him (senior fellows are quite easily annoyed), so I let it drop. But his reaction is not atypical – when have you heard a health economist, epidemiologist or psychologist argue from an explicit epistemological or ontological premise? Granted, Lindley wrote a very famous article about the “Philosophy of Statistics”,[1] and formal Bayes can be considered a philosophical tradition with a distinct epistemology. But that aside, only one of the cognate disciplines listed above uses the “E” and “O” words – sociology.

And here is my problem. Scientific methodology is underpinned by philosophical premises and this remains the case, irrespective of whether these ideas are made explicit or remain implicit. The result is that disciplines that tend to be explicit about their philosophical assumptions have more influence over methodology than those where the underlying principles are only implicit. In short, if epidemiologists, economists and psychologists remain silent on epistemology, then they abrogate intellectual authority. Likewise, sociologists who do not dwell on these topics, delegate ‘authority’ to those who do. And with apologies to my esteemed colleagues in that discipline – the intellectual basis of applied research is too important an issue to leave to a sub-section of sociologists. This would not be so important, but for the constructivist flavour of much of the methodological literature in sociology. I am a vociferous, but lonely, critic of this viewpoint.[2] I would invite readers who have not already done so to enjoy the story of a hoax perpetuated by a Professor of Physics at the expense of constructivist sociologists – just type Alan Sokal into Google.[3] [4]

There is, however, one point on which constructivists and sociologists are absolutely right – we should talk about these things. However, philosophy of science does not seem to be prominent in philosophy departments and most disciplines ignore the subject. Why this reluctance to engage?

I do not have the answer and look forward to your views. One theory is that the more successful a discipline, the less it worries over its epistemology. Physicists (Sokal aside) take little notice of the subject. People who find bosons and black holes are content with their methodology, thank you very much. The role of philosophy is back to front in physics – a ‘mopping up’ exercise to describe how the physicists succeeded (so called ‘naturalism’), rather than a normative prescription for future work. Does this mean that sociologists struggle to come up with riveting discoveries and so become self-conscious about how they should go about their business. I do not believe that; witness the many sociological results we carry in this News Blog – the iconic Miguel & Fisman study,[5] the Good Samaritan study,[6] and the blog on how disrespect towards patients can lead to a downward spiral.[7] Maybe sociology produces great insights, but it is difficult to translate these into action. In that case, it would be natural to search for the link between research findings and decisions. Or could it be that there is some sort of ideological motivation rooted in existentialism? After all, sociology lies very close to politics. So maybe some sociologists are buying into a liberation ideology that paints reductionist science into the ‘bad’ corner, along with capitalists, industrialists and (now) bankers? Or is it connected with the subject matter in some way that chemistry, psychology and medicine are not?

News Blog reader Frances Griffiths suggested a further reason for philosophical pre-occupation in sociology. She made the point that in studying society, sociologists have to be aware of limits on objectivity arising from belonging to that society. It could be supposed that this applies particularly to qualitative work where separation of observer and observed cannot be achieved in the way it can in quantitative work.

As always we seek the views of readers on this point. One may make a further point in passing. While research methodology is not philosophically aware, save in sociology, some scientific findings are so curious or ineffable that they provoke philosophical reflections. This applies in the area of astro- and quantum-physics, and also consciousness studies as discussed later in this News Blog.

In the meantime, we must accept that sociologists are the main group making the running in the philosophy of scientific methodology and many lean towards a constructivist (if not a relativist) point of view, as promoted by Lincoln and Guba.[8] Why don’t the rest of us engage? When applied health researchers – especially those with a biomedical background – are confronted with constructivist arguments, they appear either not to understand them, or to be so incredulous that they cannot take them seriously. I bang on about the enemy at the gate and they look at me pitifully. So there you have it. I am a lonely voice in an epistemological wilderness.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Lindley DV. The Philosophy of Statistics. J Roy Stat Soc D-Sta. 2000; 49(3):293-337.
  2. Paley J, Lilford R. Qualitative methods: an alternative view. BMJ. 2011; 342:d424.
  3. Sokal AD. A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca. 1996. pp. 62-64.
  4. Sokal AD. Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text. 1996; 46/47:217-52.
  5. Lilford RJ; Chen Y-F. Challenging the Idea of Hospital Culture. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 9 January 2015.
  6. Lilford RJ. A Culture of Quality: Join the Debate. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 131 June 2014.
  7. Lilford, RJ. Care that is not just unskilled but abusive. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 8 May 2015.
  8. Lincoln YS, & Guba EG. Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. 1985.

8 thoughts on “Where is the Philosophy of Science in Research Methodology?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you, Richard, philosophy of science is hugely important to scientists. It helps them to uncover assumptions that inevitably underlie their work and provides them with a language and concepts to critically discuss them. In my view, Helen Longino’s ‘Science as Social Knowledge, Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry’ (1990) addresses these issues in an accessible and balanced way. However, this does not seem to be the received view, as observed by Susan Haack (another good read!), stating that ‘philosophy of science is generally regarded to be as relevant to scientists as ornithology to birds’ (original source unknown to me).

    On te positive side, it might interest you to know that one of the great physicists of our time, Mikhail Katsnelson, IS interested in philosophy of science AND has actualy written about it. He does all of these things along with writing poetry.

  2. Dear Richard
    Thank you for this stimulating piece. Applied health research often appears to lack any underlying philosophical basis and I believe this is one reason why it is a) rather unattractive to some of the most able early career researchers and b) often appears as little more than an aggregration of ‘interesting facts’. I welcome your voice but would dispute your characterisation as a ‘lonely’ voice; there is at least one other.

  3. I cannot resist starting this with a quote form Bertrand Russell that I recently had the pleasure of discussing with Richard. “The British are distinguished among the nations of modern Europe, on the one hand by the excellence of their philosophers, and on the other by their contempt for philosophy. In both respects they show their wisdom.” [In: ‘Philosophy and Politics’; Unpopular Essays (Unwin Paperbacks, London 1984) p. 13.]
    When I was young and gauche and studying physics in Cambridge (in about 1970) I had a friend called David Papineau who organized a debate between (I think) Sir Martin Rees and a philosopher, whose name I forget, on the topic of “Schrodingers Cat”. Believing that understanding the philosophy of science would make me a better physicist I went along with enthusiasm. What has remained with me is this. The philosopher spoke first and handed each of us a printed copy of his talk which he then proceeded to read out. Rees then stood up, without notes but with a piece of chalk, waved his hands around a lot, scribbled bits and pieces on the blackboard and then sat down. Later that week I happened to sit next to Rees at lunch in Kings and I asked him about this, to me, rather strange encounter. His answer was that there is so much that is completely agreed on in physics that we can argue and discuss it all in a very loose and unstructured way. On the other hand there is so little that is agreed on in philosophy that every word has to be chosen with care and defended to the death.
    So the first problem might just be that we have drifted so far apart in our language and rules of engagement that it is hard to to talk to each other any more. The second problem is that while I still love the idea of teaching young people the philosophical underpinnings of their science I fear that they spend so much time looking after their Twitter, Facebook and e-mail accounts that they no longer have time to reflect on anything. But perhaps the best answer I ever had was one evening, having a somewhat drunken and totally uninformed argument with a friend who was studying philosophy, I asked him: What possible point can there be to studying philosophy? To which he immediately replied: So that we can have argument like this.

  4. Readers may want to look at the following paper published in Social Science and Medicine by Currie et al 2014 to understand why clinician scientists and those of a more sociological origin face challenges in mediating the epistemological divide in the CLAHRC initiative — Currie, G., El Enany, N., Lockett, A. (2014). Intra-professional dynamics in translational health research: The perspective of social scientists. Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 114, No. 1, pp. 81-88

  5. It was interestingly commented by a philosophy expert that her role was rather similar to that of an expert on drains. No-one bothers to think about them except in the rare time where things go radically wrong

  6. Dear Richard,

    I agree, in spirit, with what you have written. I understand your predicament. Whilst studying for the MPH at the University of Birmingham, I was thoroughly engaged with all of the teaching, however, when it came to medical sociology module with its thematic analysis and emphasis upon relativistic truth, the subject material remained a stubborn bulwark for many within my cohort. I enjoyed the debate, not for its own sake, but in that I saw what really was at stake when you do take a constructivist, relativistic viewpoint.

    Having had a little exposure to philosophy of science and some of its other branches,’ I can say that a winsome engagement with all those detractors, those lukewarm and those who adopt a position similar to our own is needed. But there is a burden for us to take. There is an exigency for us to understand our own position on a deeper and more intimate level. For some that will require a scaling and necessary wading of both the philosophy and history of ideas since the Pre-Socratics (odd-balls that presage Socrates) to the current Post-modernist project (discursive, critical and anathema to unity). Some need to go and apply their philosophical values and see if it happens to be true. I am not separating the two but wishing for people to see the inviolable link between values and action (that produce consequences)

    On a practical level, the first option of appraising critical junctures in human thought is a stumbling block to those enthusiastic about succeeding early in life. We know the most philosophically inclined and curious individuals, generally, suffer from a disconnect with the practicalities of life. And we know that medical sciences is an inherently practical endeavour and I can appreciate why many neither have the time nor patience to engage with the underpinning values of their profession. Truth be told, there is a lot to wade through to gain ‘convincing answers.’ However, I don’t feel it has to be this way. I think we can lay bare many of the philosophical assumptions and try them to their limits. This can be conveyed in daily dialogue with our colleagues whilst waiting for the lunch to heat up in the microwave or on the way to and from work. Personally tried and tested. Philosophy of science should not be taught as such; it ought to be nurtured from youth. Honestly, this is difficult to see happening with this day and age’s focus upon pragmatism. The pragmatic enterprise is summarised in the following paraphrasing William James’ pithy statement ‘the cash value of a theory is in its usefulness’.

    I sense that there is ‘fire in the belly’ from these comments. Richard, we stand firm with you on this.

    Here is some reading for those interested in seeing this snapshot.


    Habermas’ critique of Postmodernism

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