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Rules And Methods Of Science

Brian D. Rude, 2004

      The “scientific method” is certainly an accomplishment to be celebrated and taught to each new generation. But usually, it seems to me, when we talk about the scientific method we are talking about only one scientific method, the method I will call “contrived experimentation”. We teach this to children at least by the seventh grade, perhaps earlier. And we demonstrate it. A typical demonstration might be growing one flat of beans in direct sunlight in the classroom window, and comparing the results to another flat of beans planted in a part of the classroom that gets very little sunlight. We explain about hypotheses and controls.

      In the 1970’s I was going to school part time studying science. I took courses in geology, chemistry, microbiology, and zoology. It seemed each introductory course in a subject, and in some courses past the introductory level, we would start out with an explanation of the “scientific method”. I got tired of this. Didn’t we learn that in seventh grade? Let’s get on with the subject. And the more I thought about it the more I decided they were too focused on only one scientific method.

      Contrived experimentation is important, of course, but it should not be “the” scientific method. It is only one among many.

      Description is a scientific method. It can be argued that it is not a very complete scientific method and that may be true. But it is a start, and it is an indispensable start. Without simple accurate description no other scientific method can be used, for there is nothing to work with. This may seem obvious, but it is sometimes overlooked. We have to know some facts if we are to do anything else

      Two historical examples come to mind. I understand that throughout much of the age of discovery, fifteenth through nineteenth century let us say, England was more conscientious than other countries about making records as they explored. It was not enough to go out and discover new worlds, there was also recognition of the value of observing the world and recording those observations. Thus in the twentieth century England had a wartime advantage over some other countries in that they had several centuries of carefully recorded information about the world. They had maps, and these maps proved invaluable in ways that could not be foreseen when they were made. Another example is the Louis and Clark expedition. The goal of this expedition, as I understand it, was simply to accumulate knowledge, to collect facts. This is science.

      An important example of trying to skip over description, in my opinion, is in the field of education. There are always lots of modern ideas about teaching and learning, but there is not much that I think qualifies as simple accurate description of what actually goes on in the classroom. Without this as a basis to build on most any new educational idea will be only a fad. The science of education seems to have progressed very little in my lifetime.

      Ordering of facts is another method of science. Again it is basic, but it’s a definite step above the simple gathering of facts. I think the best example of this is the classification system of plants and animals developed by Linnaeus in the 1700’s. Lots of knowledge of plants and animals had accumulated by this time, but organizing that knowledge was not automatic. Linnaeus provided a method of organization. Most importantly, I think, the need for a hierarchical organization was not appreciated before the time of Linnaeus. Without this hierarchical organization they might as well put accumulated knowledge in alphabetical order.

      A third method of science that is much underappreciated is reinterpretation of facts. This is not quite the same as organizing, or even reorganizing, of facts. A reinterpretation of facts is the idea of entertaining new hypotheses and trying to fit old facts into a new hypothesis. The classical example of this, in my opinion, is Copernicus in the 1500’s. He tried to fit the facts he knew about stars and planets in with the idea that the earth goes around the sun. He could not produce new facts. He could not do a contrived experiment. But by reinterpreting old facts in light of a new hypothesis he revolutionized astronomy. A similar example is provided by the early development of geology. I think it was James Hutton who started this. The basic facts of the physical world were well known, but until Hutton reinterpreted these facts in light of the idea of geological time these facts did not produce geology as we know it now.

      These three methods form a hierarchy. Description has to come first. You can’t organize facts until you have some facts to organize. Organization has to come next, and then reinterpretation. Reinterpretation can happen only after description and organization have advanced to a certain degree. Reinterpretation is necessary at times because the present interpretation of facts might be faulty in some way.

      Contrived experimentation, it seems to me, doesn’t do much good until there is a good foundation of description, organization, and reinterpretation. A scientific experiment, it is said, is a way of asking nature a question. But a poorly asked question may produce a poor answer, or, even more importantly, a misleading answer. That, I believe, is the case with much educational research, indeed with much research in social science in general. Let me give an hypothetical example of asking the wrong question..

      Explorers from mars come to earth and try to figure things out. They use the scientific method, of course. One experiment is to find the effect of gasoline on cars. The hypotheses is that putting gas in the tank makes a car go faster. The experimental design is very simple. They choose one parking lot of about 500 cars, a factory night shift parking lot, let us say, and one night they surreptitiously add two gallons of gas to every tank. They choose a similar parking lot of about 500 cars, a different factory night shift parking lot, as the control. Let’s suppose they have the technical ability to carry out this experiment without being detected. Then they watch from their flying saucer the next day and record the speed of each car in both the experimental group and the control group. Let’s suppose that the average speed observed in the experimental group the next day is 26.8 mph, and the average speed of cars in the control group is 24.2 mph. The Martians then announce to their part of the galaxy that on earth cars do go faster when you put gas in the tank. That explains their previous observations of people stopping at gas stations. The conclusion seems well established - gas makes the car go faster. The “scientific method” has established that fact. There was an experiment, a carefully matched control group, accurate data collection, and so on.

      But is it really true that “gas makes the car go faster”? A contrived experiment might indicate that it’s true. But that doesn’t really hit the nail on the head, so to speak. This example is not totally fabricated by me. Years ago one of our children asked me exactly that question. “Do we put gas in the car to make it go faster?” I think he was probably about six or seven at that time, and for his age the question made perfect sense. I don’t remember what answer I gave him - I was too busy analyzing his question. He was probably disappointed with my answer, for it was probably not a simple “yes” or “no” answer that would fit into his world. He obviously had a hypothesis - gas makes the car go faster. If confirmed, this hypothesis would explain some things that he had observed. He did not look to contrived experimentation for the answer, like the Martians in my example. Rather he looked to authority - me, and that was very sensible of him. But the ultimate answer, the answer he needs, but not the answer he wants, requires an actual understanding of the relationship of gas to cars. It requires a reinterpretation of the whole situation. And once this reinterpretation is made, the original question, “Does gas make the car go faster” requires no answer.

      Description, organization, and interpretation together make up what I think can best be called the “theoretical framework” of a subject. A faulty theoretical framework can subvert an entire field of study. It leads investigators to ask the wrong questions. “Does gas make the car go faster?”, though a very sensible question for a five year old, is ultimately the wrong question. Using contrived experiment to try to establish a definite “yes” or “no” answer to this question is utterly without value.

      Biology had a faulty theoretical framework until Darwin came along. Of course there may be ways in which it has a faulty theoretical framework yet. I think behaviorism was a faulty theoretical framework for psychology and related fields for much of the twentieth century. I suppose there are many examples of faulty theoretical frameworks in any science, but they are normally not apparent until we see them in hindsight.

      I think the field of education has a faulty, or very inadequate, theoretical framework, primarily for lack of simple accurate description. It is very hard to tell from the literature just what goes on in actual classrooms. Perhaps there are a few books that provide this, but they are rare. I have found a book or two or case histories of classroom problems, but that seems to be about the extent of it. Rather than accurate description of what goes on in the classroom we get scenarios that support ideological and unrealistic ideals, and the field of education does not progress. Facts can not be organized and interpreted if they are not recognized and recorded. And until there are some facts that are organized and interpreted we don’t have a theoretical framework.

      In the example of the Martians’ experiment we may assume that they will figure out soon enough that their experiment is unneeded. For children wondering why we stop at gas stations periodically, the answer is found not in experimentation, but by explanation by parents. This brings up one last method of science that I think is much underappreciated, perhaps because it can usually be taken for granted. That is research, the kind done in a library rather than a laboratory - simply finding out what has already been established about a subject. We might call this an appeal to authority, as when my son asked me about gas and cars. I was a convenient authority on such matters, so no experiment was needed. But this choice of words, an “appeal to authority”, makes it sound like we would accept authority unquestioningly, which is not a good method of science. Whatever we call it, the point is that the easiest way to learn something, if it is already known, is to read about it, to “look it up”, not to discover it again. This idea is not, I presume, underappreciated by practicing scientists. No one wants to waste time and energy discovering what someone else has already established. But in the teaching of science, among idealists at least, we seem to fail to realize that the number one method of learning science is by direct instruction. That means a teacher using a good text book managing the time and efforts of students in the time tested activities of listening, reading, study, homework, tests, and all the other prosaic things we do in school. The romantics like to think we learn science by doing science. Therefore we ought to have students do a lot of experiments in a laboratory setting. Some, apparently, would even argue that “knowing science” is unimportant. All that is important is “doing science”. But I would argue that that is not the case. There are lots of things that could qualify as “doing science” but which do not contribute to a body of scientific knowledge, that leave nothing lasting. In reply to the argument that “we learn by doing”, I would argue that we learn to manipulate mental concepts by manipulating mental concepts. That’s what those prosaic things like listening, reading, study, homework, and tests are all about.

      With these ideas in minds I will now present some rules of science as I see it.


      1. If you look closer you will see more.


      I think it was some years ago now that an anthropologist restudied some of the societies made famous by Margaret Mead. He concluded that in some important ways Mead had it wrong. I think at least part of the situation was that informants in the culture had told Mead some things about their culture that was more rationalization than candor. The second anthropologist, by digging a little deeper was able to make some important corrections. In my view this does nothing to diminish the accomplishments of Mead. I think it remains true that she broke new ground in anthropology. If she got a few things wrong that is certainly to be expected. The second anthropologist had Mead’s work to start from. He looked closer, and he saw more. That will always be the case. We should always look closer, because we always will see more. And so science and knowledge advance.


      2. If you rethink you may think better.


      Copernicus did this. By thinking again he thought better. Rethinking is often forced upon us. When we make predictions that don’t come true we must rethink. When new evidence surfaces, we must rethink. But we don’t have to wait for circumstances to force us to rethink. A certain amount of rethinking ought to be a regular part of any scientist’s thinking.

      Another example that comes to mind is the idea of the “selfish gene”, the idea that organisms may be thought of as ways genes use to propagate themselves rather than the other way around. Similarly the idea of “memes”, the idea that the spread of cultural traits may be thought of in the same way as the spread of genes, as proven productive. These two ideas come from rethinking.

      I think the term “paradigm shift” is appropriate here. Sometimes rethinking gives us a new perspective in which everything can be reinterpreted in a new and better way.

      I think a certain amount of rethinking is also just a part of everyday life. I suspect there are many cases in which a person figures out things like my example of gas and cars. Going from the idea “gas makes the car go faster” to “gas makes the car go” may indeed be a paradigm shift of some importance in a child’s intellectual life. Just because rethinking on this order happens in everyday life, and is seldom recognized as such, does not mean it is unimportant.

      Unfortunately this “rule” of science is pretty indefinite. If you rethink you may think better, or you may not. Copernicus rethought the basic facts of astronomy and accomplished great things. If I try to rethink the basic facts of astronomy I’ll just be wasting my time. I won’t accomplish a thing. Many times the result of rethinking is to arrive again at the previous conclusions. But still the rule is very important. Every once in a while it makes all the difference in the world.


      3. Things are always simpler than they may at first appear.


      In studying physics I was surprised to learn how often the basic idea of some topic can be reduced to the form A = BC. We should always look for simplifying principles, even when we think we have something all figured out. Often the simplification comes from finding a simple rule that, once found, is easily remembered and applied. A very minor example occurred for me recently. When moving or copying files on the computer I usually wondered whether I would end up with a “move” or a “copy”. I could bring up a “help” page and figure out which buttons to press, or which way it would work in my particuar situation, but it seemed chaotic. Then I ran across the rule, “If two drives are involved, a copy is made. If two folders on the same drive are involved, a move is made.” This “same drive-different drive” rule made it plain and simple.


      4. Things are always more complicated than they may at first appear.


      The ancients had some things all figured out. There were four elements - earth, air, fire, and water. But it turned out things were a little more complicated than that. After Newton we thought we had some basic rules of physics all figured out. Then Einstein found things were a little more complicated.

      Rule 4 is in direct contradiction to rule 3. Obviously they can’t both be true at the same time. But as rules for science I think they are both important.


      So where does contrived experimentation fit into all of this. I would say that contrived experimentation uses all of this. Contrived experimentation is not as basic as these other rules and methods. It is an application of these rules and methods, and it is in the service of these rules and methods. Without accurate description and meaningful organization of known facts contrived experiments cannot mean much. Indeed they may be nothing more than nonsense. When done well contrived experimentation is a way of looking closer. This results in new facts which may be organized, and which might be rethought and reinterpreted. A contrived experiment is not in itself rethinking, but it may force rethinking.


      And there are many, many more methods of science. Every new technique is a new method of science. The invention of the electron microscope made for a new method of science, just as the invention of the optical microscope did a few centuries before. Carbon dating is a new method of science. Advances in math make new methods of science. A new hypothesis, like Darwin’s idea of evolution makes for a new method of science.

      By this line of thought we might argue that something as prosaic as glue is a method of science. Actually I think there is some merit in this. A new glue, for example, might make it possible to prepare microscope slides in a better way, which might contribute to learning more. Or perhaps that is stretching the idea too far. If glue is a method of science it surely is not one of the more basic methods. Such a new glue as I described would simply be a means of applying the “look closer” rule. But that could be said about any method of science.

      Contrived experimentation is a broader and more basic method of science than the electron microscope, which, in turn, is a more basic method of science than glue. But I would argue that contrived experimentation is not the most basic. It seems to me that the most basic methods of science are, and will always be, to look closer, and to keep rethinking.