Friday, August 5, 2011

Science Without Method

Everyone knows that The Scientific Method is the key to doing science. No-one's quite sure what it is, but they know it's there, and it's something rather special.

It's not. When scientists sit down to work, we don't use "the scientific method" to make discoveries. We use microscopes, brain scanners, telescopes and particle detectors, all of which are just ways of looking at things. They're special in terms of what they let you look at, but that's it. Science is looking.

It's true that in order to do good science, you need to be careful. You need to avoid falling into various traps that lead to misleading data and false conclusions. You could call the care taken over scientific observations "The Scientific Method", and some people do, but that's misleading, because none of it is specific to science.

One of the most important considerations in science is making make sure that you have a proper control condition. This sounds technical, but all it really means is that you need to make sure that you really are looking at what you set out to observe.

To discover the effect of a drug on people, say, you just give them the drug and look to see what happens, using the appropriaye equipment. However, you need to compare this to an appropriate control, such as a placebo pill, because if you don't, you're not just seeing the effect of the drug, many other things as well, such as the placebo effect, the passage of time, random events.

In the same way, if you wanted to find out what happens when you push that little button on your TV remote, you wouldn't mash five other buttons at the same time. To discover what was in the top drawer of your dresser, you'd look there, not in the bottom drawer.

That's really all there is to it. It can be complicated to do this in practice, but the principle is that simple: you take care to look at what you're interested in.

It's said that part of the "Scientific Method" is forming hypotheses, or theories. Scientists do that, but so do we all, all the time. You might have a theory that your boss is an alcoholic, or that your husband is cheating on you, or that your car's spark plug is bust.

You might call these ideas, notions, hunches, suspicions, thoughts, fears, but they're still hypotheses about the world. Indeed, scientists often use those words too. One word is as good as another.

If your boss was an alcoholic, the way to prove it might be to somehow give him a breathalizer test after lunch, or sneak a peek at his credit card bill and see how much he spends on booze. That would be an observation to test your hypothesis, or in other words, an experiment (another formal word that scientists don't always use).

That's all science is. Looking at things carefully, getting ideas, and checking them out.

I said this in my last post, but it bears repeating: this is why most objections to, or concerns about, "science" or worse "modern science", fail. Any given scientist, or any given scientific theory, may be wrong, just like anyone or anything else. Yet to say that "Science can't" do something is saying that looking and thinking can't do it. To blame "Science" for something is to blame the human mind.

Note: This post is a follow-up to Science Doesn't Say, and the second in a three-part series.

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