Empiricism and Rationalism

Scientists are sometimes classified into do-ers and thinkers, those who are physically active and those who are mentally active. Obviously, this classification must not be taken too seriously because most scientists are both of these things. But many scientists lean quite strongly towards one extreme or the other. And the very good scientists are quite often very good at only one of these things. The really good scientists are very good at both, and they are rare indeed.

Empiricists are scientists who prefer facts to ideas. The extremists among them tend to believe that science consists of facts only, and that any sort of speculation is unscientific. Their research consists of experiments, designed to discover new facts. But it involves little else.

Extreme rationalists, on the other hand, love ideas and theories to the point of absurdity. They like to postulate and discuss insoluble problems, such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Empiricists tend to be physically active, emphasising the doing of experiments. Rationalists tend to be mentally active, emphasising the role of thinking. Clearly, neither extreme is acceptable. Good science must be a blend of both facts and ideas.

Part of the effort to convert the life sciences into 'hard' sciences has produced an excessive empiricism. This is particularly true in crop science. Try searching the crop science journals for theoretical papers. They are very nearly as rare as cuckoo clock guano. The empiricists, who believe that only facts can be good science, will doubtless dislike the present book. "Far too speculative" I hear them cry. But the fact remains that crop science, and particularly the control of crop parasites, is in a mess. Much of this mess has resulted from experiments conducted with a totally inadequate theoretical background.

There are, of course, two kinds of experiment. One kind aims simply at discovering new facts and, incidentally, producing another scientific publication. The other kind of experiment aims at making factual tests of a theory. The second category is the more profound, and the more important. It is also rather rare in crop science, particularly when the theory concerns the higher systems levels.

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