Category Archives: Is the scientific method a myth?

Is the scientific method a myth?

Just recently a project I led produced a quirky result among the plethora of data. While participating students could clearly understand the many different approaches to science, they apparently still could not let go of the alternative conception that the practice of science is embodied in a single linear scientific method.

This is unsurprising because a single linear scientific method is drummed into students throughout their high school career. Teachers also mostly believe that is how scientists make discoveries, which of course is unlikely if they did adopt a linear approach.

Pose a hypothesis, collect data, analyse the data, draw conclusions, is demanded of inquiry-based school science activities. There, done. But is is a sterile science with all the objectivity of a robot missing its human creativity chip or the presence of other robots to critique the work and arrive at consensus on the veracity of theories, observations and experiments. No possibility of discovery, no sense of wonder, no intense curiosity to understand how nature and the universe really work, or to express a fundamental aspect of nature in a simple, elegant equation.

Think E=MC squared. Did Einstein ask a single question, did he collect the data, did he analyse it and then draw conclusions to arrive at the General Theory of Relativity? Einstein’s work superceded that of Newton, but did that mean Newton did not apply the scientific method?

The fallacy that the successes of science are driven by a linear scientific method is perhaps the mother of all alternative conceptions. So why do we still teach it to our students in isolation to the wider picture? There are a list of reasons – pedagogy and the difficulty of teaching science to high school students about how science is actually practised. Wong and Hodson (2010) could see this too – they were merely pointing out the difference between school science and science as it is practised. Tang, et.al. (2009) argue that rigid adherence to the scientific method can potentially disrupt the very inquiry skills that students are being encouraged to learn.

Over the years students participating in one of my informal learning projects have said that they had not understood from their school science that scientists actually work at something pretty cool and fascinating, and that the way they do it applies to how evidence is evaluated for its strength and probability.

Students come to grips with the idea that science is modified through time as greater understanding is achieved. It does not mean scientists ‘got it wrong’ or that they are uncertain, but that the nature of science is limited by our knowledge and our tools.

An example of limitation is the search for other Earths.  Before 1996 scientists could only speculate that other Earth-sized worlds existed around other stars. The Kepler mission designed to detect extrasolar planets tripled the number of known extrasolar planets and provided the first insight into the existence and potential number of Earth sized worlds in our galaxy.

The data from Kepler indicates that there is a high probability of millions of other worlds in our galaxy alone – which is itself one of at least one hundred billion other galaxies. Yet in all this vastness we may still be alone – we might be the only intelligent species that has arisen that is capable of pondering the universe. Or not. We simply do not know – right now, at least. Again – did scientists apply a linear ‘scientific method’ to be able to make the discovery that Earth sized planets do exist around other stars?  Or was it somewhat more messy than that with failures and successes along the way?

Henry Bauer in his 1992 book “Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method” says philosophers had struggled for a long time trying to explain why the scientific method produced failures as well as successes. “The scientists in practice do not actually use the scientific method, and that the scientific method cannot adequately explain the success of science, does not mean that the method is not worth talking about, that it is not  worth holding as an ideal.” (p147)

It does not seem likely that teachers will (or could or should) abandon the concept of a linear scientific method as anything but the description of a parts of a process. Few science teachers have science research experience to science does not follow a linear path. What does seem more possible is that innovative informal education projects like the Mars Lab have the opportunity to work with formal education to help students understand how science is really practised, even if they continue to believe in a linear scientific method.

References:

Bauer, H.H. (1992) Scientific literacy ad the myth of the scientific method, University of Illinois Press, Urban and Chicago

Wong, S.L and Hodson, D. (2010) From the horse’s mouth: What scientists say about scientific investigation and scientific knowledge, Science Education (93) 1:109-130

Tang, X., Coffey, J.E., Elby, A. and Levin, D.M. (2010)  The scientific method and scientific inquiry: Tensions in teaching and learning, Science Education (94) 29-47