Class Warfare Blog

January 15, 2021

Scientific Method Nonsense (Promulgated by Teachers)

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 1:02 pm

I encountered the following question on Quora today: “What is the correct order of steps in the scientific method?”

I Googled the scientific method and got this in the “People Also Ask” box:
What are the 5 parts of the scientific method?
What are the 4 parts of the scientific method?
What are the 6 stages of the scientific method?
What are the 8 steps of the scientific method?
Each of these contain nonsense such as  “The scientist selects what it is that he wishes to observe.” I never knew! All of those years I spent as a scientist and a teacher of science and no one told me this!

There are no such steps and there is no correct order. (Repeat after me: There are. . . .) Rather the process is quite organic.

The “steps” often described were made up by teachers to have something to teach and test. (Ah, my people, my people! I weep for my people. Note In another life I was a professor of chemistry.)

The simplest form of the so-called scientific method is: conjecture and criticism. One makes a conjecture about how nature works and then one criticizes it. Often enough the criticism results in the conjecture being modified which results in the criticism (aka experiments designed to test the conjecture) being modified and on and on.

I have seen many such lists, most of which are quite comical. One started with #1 Collect Facts, followed by #2 Make Hypothesis, etc. My cartoon mind shows a Larsen-esque cartoon with a scientist (in a white lab coat, of course) standing with his hand on a door knob, the door labeled “Lab,” with the thought balloon “Today I am going to collect some facts!” One just doesn’t collect facts randomly, one becomes curious about some particular aspect of nature and learns as much as one can about that phenomenon. I guess that could be construed as “collecting facts” but that verbiage seems strange.

In order to make a good conjecture, one needs to know a great deal about the phenomenon under scrutiny. Then one asks why this, why that? And then moves onto “maybe such and such is happening.” This is the conjecture. Then one goes on to “if that is happening, how could I test that?” This is the criticism. Obviously one needs to have a conjecture before one can criticize it, but as mentioned before, often one affects the other and vice-versa, so their “order” is somewhat vague at best.

The parts of the process that are more important are: being committed to honesty, following the data wherever they lead, sharing one’s data and processes widely through publication, correcting errors, admitting when one was incorrect, and so on. These are more important than any such list of steps made up by some teacher. Apparently these lists are important because school children ask an unending stream of questions about them . . . what a waste of time and effort.

15 Comments »

  1. I once had a philosophy PhD student (with no scientific experience) tell me that I was wrong to suggest that deduction was used in the scientific method. He insisted it was inductive only. I patiently explained to him how actual scientific investigations are conducted. Hypothethes are attempts to explain disparate data (inductive) while remaining consistent with existing theory and while considering necessary implications (both deductive). He never got it I’m sorry to say. Nor did he get that he was well outside his knowledge domain. Or that he could find excellent university sources to tell him exactly what I was saying. It’s a messy process in real life. In his head it was a tidy little inductive reasoning monopole. Can’t really save people. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Matt Barsotti — January 15, 2021 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

    • As they say, a picture is worth (more than) a thousand words.

      Like

      Comment by SoundEagle 🦅ೋღஜஇ — January 15, 2021 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

    • Often, people use a very simple model of what science is when considering such distinctions. When people ask me whether inductive or deductive reasoning is used, I answer “yes!” and intuition, wildass guesses, trial and error, counterintuitive thinking and anything else plus the kitchen sink thrown in. When we get ready to present, then we stick to a format and rules, otherwise its drug hallucinations, whatever works.

      On Fri, Jan 15, 2021 at 1:13 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — January 15, 2021 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  2. Richard Feynman made a little talk on the scientific method. His version: when you don’t know something, you GUESS. Then you compute the consequences (predictions) of that guess. And you test those predictions with some sort of experiment. If the experiment does not confirm your predictions, then your guess was WRONG, and you need to try a different guess.

    He emphasized that if your experimental results bear out your predictions, that does NOT necessarily prove your guess is correct.

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by gfbrandenburg — January 15, 2021 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

    • As usual he was spot on. I hope he clarified that an “educated guess” is what is desired. Only Thomas Edison made almost random guesses and he was more engineer/inventor than scientist.

      On Fri, Jan 15, 2021 at 1:24 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

      >

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — January 15, 2021 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

  3. My simplest descriptions:

    First, this one goes back to something we all learned in elementary school math class: “Check your work”.

    And you always need to ask “If I am wrong, how could I find that out?” If there’s no way to check your work, and no way to test whether you have gotten something wrong, then you aren’t doing science.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Ubi Dubium — January 15, 2021 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve been pretty critical of the grade school version of “the scientific method” over the years. But I do think it serves a purpose as an intermediate step in understanding. The problem is that students need to be told that it’s a simplification and that real science is far more diverse and messier. And that the specific methods in any particular field are themselves the result of scientific investigation in figuring out what works better or worse.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by SelfAwarePatterns — January 16, 2021 @ 10:38 am | Reply


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