Understanding science requires a science

Natural Science

Natural Science is a fascinating area of knowledge. You only have to start scratching the surface of  science before you come across a litany of examples of its awesome nature, especially in regards to its impact on our lives. We also very quickly realise that there are many myths to do with science. I suspect that your TOK classroom has involved a discussion about the ‘basic scientific method’ (BSM). This is a very good starting point for understanding the idea of science, the experience of science outside the classroom, the nature of knowledge that science produces, and the impact that it has had on our understanding of the world. Often this basic scientific method will be further defined along two lines – the Deductive-Experimental Method (the experimental method) and the Inductive Research Study Method (the non-experimental method). There is a lot to be said about these two as part of a discussion about science. (For example, look at your textbook. What does it say about the scientific method?)

However, our focus is one of the classic assumptions about science that is often introduced early into any consideration of science and that is the assumption that science is due process. Any discussion of science will quickly turn to role of humans in science and the creative dimension that is often overlooked in the discussions of science in the basic textbook.

In fact there is no one method of scientific inquiry. This should come as no surprise. However, science does need a common language in order for science be discussed. The contemporary basic scientific method is better defined as ‘stages of scientific enquiry’. These can be identified as Problem Identification, Planning/Design, Research, and Problem Closure.

Scientists can often reflect on different ways of doing science. I have established a list that I have developed over a number of years, based on my readings in TOK. These are loosely defined as:

  • The Hypothesis driven research
  • Designing the ‘Big Picture’
  • ‘Try it and just see what happens’
  • ‘Data generation systems’
  • looking for the ‘Lucky break’
  • ‘Right place, right time’.
  • The ‘happy accidents’

Adding to this, practicing scientists often talk about a culture of scientific thinking where creativity and imagination are dominant, where the relationship between technology and science is important, and where collaboration is essential.

A follow up to these ideas about science can be to look at how science produces its insights into the world that help our understanding of it. The best summary is by Alan Lightman in his article ‘Scientific moments of truth’, published in the New Scientist, 19 November 2005, Issue 2526, p 36. Lightman starts his analysis by using the example of Otto Loewi, who recalls how the idea for testing the way nerves communicated occurred in a dream. Lightman, however, does not just dwell on this rather amazing story but continues to look at other ways in which science can produce these insights and in the process produces a ‘taxonomy of scientific discovery’. He provides the following categories:

  • The Accident
  • Principles First
  • Principles Last
  • The Timely Clue
  • The Analogy
  • The Mathematical Imperative
  • New Tools
  • The Long Haul
  • Pattern of Discovery

I will let you research these further, but clearly the BSM is not alone.

Interestingly, he also has an observation to make about the type of person who undertakes science and the search for scientific discoveries. As Lightman says,

 

“As is well known among scientists but not among the general public, there is no single scientific personality type. Great scientists can be bold and self confident revolutionaries, like Rutherford or Einstein or Watson. Great scientists can also be modest and diffident, like Krebs or Fleming or Meitner. William Bayliss, who discovered the first hormone in 1902, was cautious, meticulous and in love with the details, while Ernest Starling, his collaborator, was brisk, impatient, engaged mainly by the broad sweep of things.”

On a final note the one thing he doesn’t mention is the tendency for people to tell stories or create narratives that generate meaning for the listener. I suspect some of the claims made by scientists about their process towards a discovery are a little like interpretations of the past presented in that discipline called History – they are always bias to some degree or another to the telling of a good story. Of course, when applying for a government grant for money to commence or continue research I doubt if some of these methods above are included in the application! Can you imagine an opening statement in a research grant application such as, ‘give me lots of money and I might just get lucky!’? Mind you, that might be closer to the reality of scientific research!

 

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