Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Illusive Scientific Method

Science writers, educators and sometimes researchers have a tendency to refer to the scientific method. This method is the systematic process, methodology, used in science to acquire knowledge and test claims. One huge problem with the referral to a singular methodology, it doesn't exist. Science makes use of multiple methods, models and inferential strategies. Why so much discussion about and illusory method? Maybe, it demonstrates and appeal to tradition, an appeal to popularity, a misunderstanding of the sometimes complex nature of science and its relevant components and interacting factors, or mentioning a singular scientific method is easier than the alternatives (demonstrating cognitive miserliness- which is normal for most).

Science is broad; it consists of many components and sub-components. Discussions regarding science are sometimes short-circuited by discussing a single component. These types of discussions oversimplify the wide range of science, its development, and implications. A full appreciation of science requires much more than a focus on a singular element. Skepticism is an element of a scientific attitude and is important, but a skeptical attitude alone—without other cognitive skills and knowledge—doesn’t make one a scientific thinker. Science is all about skepticism, so say the popularizers of science. Skepticism is important, but without the knowledge and appropriate skills, this characteristic will not make one a scientific thinker. Science is hard. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”  Science: The Vast Enterprise

Scientific literacy, in the context of this article and my research, is synonymous with general scientific knowledge. Scientific literacy in this form involves remembering scientific facts, theories, principles, and so on—products of scientific inquiry. This form of literacy is sometimes referred to as a form of derived scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is important, however other science related concepts are just as important. Scientific cognition is not the same as scientific literacy.

Scientific cognition (thinking) involves complex cognitive mechanisms. Scientific cognition involves much more than general scientific knowledge, procedural skills to conduct research, attaching “science says” to your statements, a science degree, perpetuating views of popular science figures, identifying yourself as evidence based, asking for evidence, being skeptical, etc. Scientific thinking involves thinking that can also be used out of the lab. At the very least scientific cognition involves philosophy of science, scientific methodology, quantitative reasoning, probabilistic reasoning, and logic (deductive and inductive). To learn more about scientific cognition and scientific literacy refer to- ScientificCognition and Scientific Literacy at Kentucky Academy of Science 

A better understanding and promotion of science is needed. Science does not involve a singular method. Rethinking science education involves at the most basic level acknowledging the broad nature of science, promoting the message that science is hard but learnable, identifying and accepting the limitations of science, and understanding science is about more than just retrieving scientific facts from memory. Science education is valuable for everyone. Recommendations for future science education: Rethinking Science Education   

Precision in language is essential for science communication. The misuse of the term "scientific method" is one of many examples of unclear language. In my book- In Evidence We Trust- I point to examples, often seen in textbooks and used by instructors, to the lack of precision in scientific language.  That is a problem.  Clear communication requires precise, consistent use of terminology.  Students often accuse me of being a semantic stickler.  I accept the label.  When talking and writing about science, practice precision and consistency.