He describes his method:
We may look at an object in its own context and the context of other objects, while refraining from any immediate response of desire or dislike. The calm exercise of our powers of attention will quickly lead us to a rather clear concept of the object, its parts, and its relationships, the more we pursue this study, discovering further relations among things, the more we will exercise our innate gift of observation.
Applying this method to understanding the "hidden relationships in nature" can be especially difficult, requiring an open mind and a devotion to the phenomena under observation. For Goethe, the experiment -- "intentionally reproducing empirical evidence" or "recreating phenomena" -- was the most effective means of systematically discovering the hidden relationships. The single experiment is of limited value; only a carefully studied sequence of experiments can reveal a true nature.
As pattern-recognizing and pattern-organizing beings ("a tendency altogether understandable since it springs by necessity from the organization of our being") we especially run the risk of the false conclusion:
Thus we can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies of humanity lie in wait: imagination, which sweeps us away on its wings before we know our feet have left the ground; impatience; haste' self-satisfaction; rigidity; formalistic thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity; fickleness -- this whole throng and its retinue. Here they lie in ambush and surprise not only the active observer but also the contemplative one who appears safe from all passion.
The interconnection of the universe, that "each phenomenon is connected with countless others", requires investigating each piece of empirical evidence. "We can never be careful enough in studying what lies next to it or derives directly from it. To follow every single experiment through its variations is the real task of scientific researchers." Goethe counterposed this kind of thoroughness, akin to constructing an unassailable mathematical proof, to the suspect method of attempting to prove an assertion by "using isolated experiments like arguments", which often "reaches its conclusions furtively or leaves them completely in doubt."
The elevating honesty of Goethe's approach to science contrasts starkly with recent stories of fabricated data (in the case of the Dr. Hwang Woo-suk's stem cell and cloning work). But even more distressing is questionable research paid for by corporations via consulting firms, to affect public policy around toxic chemicals they dump in the environment.
The Wall Street Journal has been running a series called "New Questions about Old Chemicals". In the 12/28/05 issue, Peter Waldman writes about a conference to evaluate current research on perchlorate, a chemical used in munitions production that can block the thyroid's ability to absorb iodine.
The host was the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The aim was "a critical and objective evaluation" of research on the chemical, a university official later said. But while the university lent its imprimatur and thus credibility to the event, the symposium was paid for by defense contractors and the Pentagon and orchestrated by industry consultants, who kept evidence of their own role to a minimum.
Afterward, the Pentagon dispatched six conference participants to present the event's conclusions to a National Research Council panel that was evaluating perchlorate for the U.S. government.
Intertox Inc., a consulting firm that advises defense contractors, billed them about $75,000 for organizing the September 2003 event, an invoice shows. University documents show that Intertox chose the format and agenda and selected the experts who would appear.
Another article ("Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer; Then Consultants Got Hold of It", 12/23/05) describes how a consulting firm hired by PG&E re-wrote a key Chinese study on the effects of chromium in ground water, suggesting that it may not have been the cause of higher cancer rates. The revised study then took on a life of its own and has been used to support maintaining high acceptable levels of the pollutant.
Science, as any social practice, exists within a matrix of social relations, and in that sense can be considered a class-partisan activity. As with ideology, a ruling class produces science that supports its class position. It does this through the levers of ideology, property and money. Ideology shapes world view, morals, assumptions, etc., much like what Goethe warned against above. Property sets boundaries and obstacles. Money directs research opportunities. "Working class science" or "new class science" would start from a different ideology, have different notions of property, and a different sense of priorities. One could argue that "working class science" can be as dishonest as "capitalist science", and hence impede the overall expansion of knowledge, but the dishonesty works along different vectors.
Goethe elsewhere categorized scientists into four types, based on the kinds of questions they ask. "Utilizers" seek practical results; "fact-finders" seek knowledge for its own sake; "contemplators" apply imagination to interpret the fact-finder knowledge. "Comprehenders" for Goethe can also be considered "creators"; they are "original in the highest sense of the term. By proceeding from ideas, they simultaneously express the unity of the whole."
In Goethe's writings, the practice of science can be seen as a kind of spiritual pursuit, also reflected in his essay on the experiment. Capitalism, though, keeps science constrained at the level of the "utilizer", with the practical results dictated by Capital. The elevation of humanity, the full-flowering of potential, cannot be realized under such constraints.
[All Goethe quotes are from Jeremy Naydler's little anthology Goethe on Science, Floris Books; the essay can also be found in Goethe: Scientific Studies, Suhrkamp Publishers (1988) or Princeton University Press (1995), edited and translated by Douglas Miller.]