Shortcoming of the Scientific Method

I have spent a large portion of my life being educated, trained, and practicing the scientific method. I have found this very helpful. What is the scientific method? Simply stated, the scientific method identifies the influences that may produce an outcome (variables).  Then, the “scientist” holds (controls) all these variables constant while changing only one of them to see how or if the result is different.  If there is no difference in the result from changing one variable, then they try to vary another factor and so forth until they identify the variable that has the greatest impact on the outcome. Of course, several variables may ultimately influence the result.  I have used this approach in many areas of life. It seems like I have thought this way and used this approach for much of my life, long before I was educated as an engineer.  I constantly changed factors in my life to see if there was any real difference in what I wanted to accomplish.

I was told by a professor during my senior year at Michigan to look for an older person whose life turned out to be one that I admired, then ask them what they did earlier in their life, which greatly influenced who they became.  I asked Earnie Walters, as he was a business executive who was influencing people for Christ through his work, which he saw as his ministry.  He was one of the first businesspeople who talked to me about a daily time with God which continually reoriented his priorities and values.  He and his wife, Lenora, were so gracious, generous, and influential to Mary Kay and me. 

I also learned during this same time that the scientific method doesn’t work in all situations, like parenting and pursuing a life purpose.  As a young parent, I remember thinking that I wouldn’t know if my parenting approach worked until it was probably too late to change it.  It would only be as my kids reached adulthood that I would see the results of my inputs (variables) in their lives.  That is a real bummer because if parents don’t have a good research or Biblical basis for their parenting style, there are so many options with “experts” espousing very different styles of parenting. 

I remember thinking this as I watched so many very rigid parents attempt to control every aspect of their child’s life. At the other extreme was the laissez-faire approach, where the parent attempted to be their child’s best friend rather than training and guiding their behavior.  I wondered at the time what the result of these approaches would be.  Unfortunately, the lag time between the treatment (parenting approach) and the results (lifestyle outcome) is about 20 years, and it is too late to undo the approach (treatment) at that point. 

The second reason the scientific method doesn’t always work in parenting is that you really can’t control all the variables, like DNA, hardwiring, social relationships, cultural influences, and other unknown factors.  Therefore, it’s difficult to ascribe the parenting approach alone for the result of an eventual child’s lifestyle (the impact of the treatment on the outcome).

A similar concern is for people who make decisions to pursue passions or purposes early in life.  At twenty years old, I made a commitment to the Jesus of the Scriptures. (not an understanding of Jesus from a specific church or denomination). That commitment influenced my thinking, beliefs, values, behaviors, relationships, and even who I married.  At that time, it wasn’t like I was 100% convinced that this decision was correct, but it was more like I was 51% convinced it was right for me and 49% doubting it was. But I went with the majority.  In the last 50 years, I have seen that 51% grow to somewhere about 85-90%, but at times, thoughts or doubts are still there. 

The challenge is, therefore, that most people who are in their twenties find many other attractive alternatives to pursue, such as sex, relationships, sports, the arts, a career, significance, money, and so forth.  Only now do I fully comprehend that my decision to pursue the Jesus of Scripture would clearly cause all these other passions to be appropriately optimized.  But this brings me back to the advice given by the professor: don’t choose someone halfway through their life, or even 60% through their life; find someone at the end of their life whose life is something you desire and emulate what they did.

As with parenting, the scientific method doesn’t work because when one pursues a passion as an overriding purpose for life, they may not see the implications for decades. The scientific approach alone fails here as well. The lag time is simply too long between the decision (treatment) and the result, and we can’t identify or control all the variables in these situations.

Michelangelo was one of the most proficient and greatest artists in history.  But late in his life, he acknowledged how his work crowded out his faith. Toward the end of his life, he wrote these words in a sonnet:

So now, from this mad passion which made me take art for an idol and a king I have learnt the burden of error that it bore. . . The world’s frivolities have robbed me of the time that I was given for reflecting upon God.1

He was a great thinker and a wise man. This is not only true of artists but also for influencers, actors, athletes, businesspeople, butchers, homemakers, pastors, philosophers, politicians, and psychometricians.  We all would benefit from keeping the long view in mind rather than simply maximizing our enjoyment in the next decade.  That is why Michelangelo also said: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it2

I am learning to keep my sights on eternity and not the immediacy.  I think that is why in Colossians 3.2, Paul reminds us to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  It isn’t easy, but the older I get the more I value these words for my life. I can’t change others, but I can practice this myself.

1 Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey
2 Beyond the Local Church by Sam Metcalf






4 responses to “Shortcoming of the Scientific Method”

  1. Rob Maupin Avatar
    Rob Maupin

    Very good words. Helpful for me today. Thanks, Greg. I appreciate your discipline to do this!

    1. Gregory Wiens Avatar
      Gregory Wiens

      Thank much Rob. You are right, it is both a discipline and a pleasure.

  2. Thomas C Phillips Avatar
    Thomas C Phillips

    I remember Ernie and Lenora…

    They were an early and important influence on my Christian walk.


  3. […] a recent blog, I mentioned that when I was 20 years old, I came to submit my life to God’s plan for my life […]

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