If at first you don’t succeed…you’re probably doing science

WordPress, who host this blog and many others, produce a daily list of top blog posts they’ve found. Termed ‘Freshly Pressed’ and appearing on the homepage it is something I generally skim over without much further reading. But last week a post by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation at The Fort Collins Museum and Discovery Science Centre caught my eye. Katie talks about the popular TV show Mythbusters and how it is a proponent of the important principle of ‘the scientific method’. This method, is what many people would term ‘trial and error’, or trial and improvement which was in fashion when I was at school, the technique of developing a question, testing and investigating it and improving tests when they do not work until an answer is reached. All tied in with using logical techniques (for example; never change two variables at once or you won’t be able to tell which once caused the effect!) as well as using objective, repeatable and reproducible methods.

This struck a chord with me as I was in the middle of running an experiment that wasn’t quite going the way I wanted. At the time I was disheartened, especially as the experiment takes about 12 hours of hands-on lab time to run and this was already my second attempt. But after reading the article I remembered that this is exactly how things happen in science. You test an idea with an experiment, it’s a complete failure, you improve your setup, you see slightly better results, you do more changes and retry…and in the end you get there. For the lucky few it may work first time, and for others it may never work or may disprove their hypothesis – but a negative result is still a result.

Scientific ideas today can travel fast. Today ideas can be discussed through emails in minutes, ideas travel from science to popular media and round the globe on news channels and newspapers within hours or days and even scientific journal articles are published online ahead of print issue as soon as the article is accepted. If I am frustrated today by the snail pace of research think of the patience held by scientists that came before us, the big names and the hundreds of ‘unknowns’ who also toiled to improve societies knowledge of the world around us. Some people give a lifetime to one small aspect of science; one bacteria, one compound, one law of physics.

The rigour and dedication which is required by the scientific method should be as an important a factor in school scientific education as the properties of the periodic table, Newton’s laws and the order of planets in the solar system. But, as Armstrong discussed in Science Magazine back in 1891, the teaching of scientific method by those who are not scientists may be difficult.&. He likened it to telling the teaching population that children must learn Chinese – what would they do? Ignore it? Teach themselves the basics and get by? Or invite in young scientists from a university? Years later, this final idea is being played out across the country through the national STEMNET programme. A nationwide initiative to encourage young people to take an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths by creating STEM ambassadors out of current employees in these fields and sending them out to schools, clubs and other events involving young people. It is a scheme I have signed up for, and recently completed my short training session in, and I am greatly looking forwards to doing some STEM volunteering in the new year.

In a more recent paper, Karsai & Kampis (2010) discuss the involvement of the scientific method in biology. They look at how, for a long time, biology was not considered a science, partly due to the fact that universal laws were harder to find that for chemistry of physics. They remark on comments made in the early 20th century by D’Arcy Thompson that mathematics turns a field into a science and claimed he was wrong – it is not maths, they say, but the scientific method. And they make an important point; any knowledge, any subject or part of the natural world we study can be scientific if we use objective reasoned arguments, hypothesis and methods.  It is this that will carry science through the current turmoil and debate surrounding climate change, genetic modification and most recently ocean acidification (as shown by the controversial November 4th Times article ‘Who’s afraid of acid in the ocean by Matt Ridley which is available from Times Online) to name but a few issues.

Looking back over this post I can see that even if my science itself doesn’t always produce good results, the process has.  The descriptions of the scientific method here – determination, rigour, reasoning, objectivity, perseverance – these are all skills practices over and over during a PhD. And all these skills should look good on a future CV. That’s my hypothesis anyway…

References:

Armstrong, H.E. (1891) The teaching of scientific method.  Science vol. XVII (433) p.433

Karsai, I. & Kampis G. (2010) The crossroads between Biology and Mathematics: The Scientific Method as the Basics of Scientific Literacy. Bioscience vol. 60 (8) p. 632-638

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4 thoughts on “If at first you don’t succeed…you’re probably doing science

    • Wow, what a quick response, before I’d even finished editing my post! I have just come back from leaving a comment for you on your site so was thrilled to see you’d already picked up on my post. Thanks for reading it and keep blogging, it’s nice to see so many science posts around.

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