Science behind-the-scenes: (Almost) Everything grade school taught you about science is wrong

By Bryan Moyers

Do you remember being taught the “Scientific Method” in school? There were always slight variations, but it went something like:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Form an educated guess (hypothesis)
  4. Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
  5. Analyze your data and draw a conclusion
  6. If your hypothesis is wrong, return to step 3 with a new hypothesis.
  7. Communicate your results

These steps seem like a great tool to introduce students to science.  They’re simple and easy to understand once the teacher explains words like “hypothesis” and “experiment”.  If you’re like me, perhaps you remember it seeming straightforward—scientists follow a linear set of steps that produce powerful results. Teachers drilled that method into us grade after grade.  If only they weren’t completely wrong.

The REAL scientific method

Maybe “completely wrong” is too harsh.  There are things wrong with the seven-step method, and some oversimplifications. Some simplification is understandable; when you deal with elementary-school kids, you can’t make things too complex.  But it’s a major issue if we never correct the simplifications!  PhD Comics points out, with a hefty dose of satire, the differences between expectations and realities of the scientific method.

Of course, the scientific method isn’t exactly like either the elementary-school version or the dark PhD Comics view of things. The way science is done is a whole lot more complicated than most people think. It isn’t linear, but a path full of twists, turns, and dead ends. Even that’s a simple view. Science is a human enterprise plagued by human problems, and those human problems complicate matters. Though hard to admit, pride and stubbornness sometimes play roles in the kinds of projects that scientists take on… and in the kind of results they report.For instance, consider a scientist performing many experiments to support their hypothesis.  If 6 out of 7 experiments turn out right, but the 7th doesn’t seem to make sense for the hypothesis, a less scrupulous researcher may be tempted not to report the last experiment. At least not until they can run more experiments, figure out what’s going on, and publish the results so their lab gets credit for the discovery.

The problems are not always caused by bad intention, either—sometimes scientists are missing a crucial piece of data that would make or break their theories. In a somewhat famous example, Darwin’s theories of inheritance were wrong in part because he’d never been exposed to Mendel’s experiments. Ignorance like this can cause a lot of strife between competing scientists (as Darwin found out), which in turn affects how they do science. (Check out this interactive graphic of “The real process of science” from the University of California).

The disconnect

Misconceptions about how science is done represent a large disconnect which influences political dialogue about important issues such as vaccinations, climate change, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), and nuclear energy. Not understanding how the scientific method works is the root of many misconceptions about science. It influences what people think of“scientific facts”, as opposed to theories or hypotheses. It makes it difficult for the public to distinguish between “good” and “bad” science. It can give people the wrong idea about where we are, technologically. It can make people think that less scrupulous scientists are the norm, and that scientific conspiracies abound.

Sometimes this means people will take seriously ideas that have been thoroughly debunked, such as the idea that vaccines cause autism (they don’t) or that evolution cannot be experimentally demonstrated (it repeatedly has). These views and misconceptions can be used for profit, seeding doubt for economic gain.  This is seen in the consistent push against the reality of climate change and funding of the anti-nuclear movement which allows fossil fuels to continue to dominate the energy market.

Fixing the disconnect presents major challenges. Improving public understanding is tougher than maintaining the status quo—it requires substantial effort to change science education in public schools and refine the views people hold about science. A critical step on the journey to improve public understanding of science is point number seven of the elementary scientific method—communicating about how science is done.

In this series, I (and other authors) will discuss aspects of science that are often unclear. Some of these will address misconceptions about how science is done, while others will tackle difficult questions. Below is a sampling of the kinds of problems and questions we will tackle in this series.

  • Is saying “correlation does not imply causation” always prudent?
  • What can “scientific facts” really tell us about the things we should or shouldn’t do?
  • How much scientific evidence is enough to validate a given viewpoint?
  • What makes a field of study worthy of being called “real science”?
  • How does funding influence the scientific method?

If you’re interested in some particular issue or misunderstanding, leave a comment below and we will try to address it.

Read the next installment of “Science behind-the-scenes” here.

About the author

bryan

Our second co-founder, Logistics Coordinator, and Senior Editor, Bryan Moyers, is a doctoral student in the Bioinformatics program at the University of Michigan. Bryan’s research focuses on methodological problems in molecular evolution, and correctly inferring information from data. In other words, his research sheds light on problems with the methods commonly used in the field of Evolutionary Biology so that improvements can be made. Bryan holds degrees in Biology and Psychology from Purdue University. His interests are in science and education issues, philosophy of science, and the intersection of science and business. Outside of science, Bryan enjoys reading, running, hiking, and brewing/consuming beer.

Read more from Bryan here.

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