Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Crowther. Greg has a Ph.D. in biology and has held several teaching and research positions at the University of Washington and other Seattle-area colleges. He’s currently working on a master’s in science education.
I’ve never been inordinately curious about the natural world. As a kid, I did not spend long hours using a telescope or a home chemistry set, nor did I catch frogs in marshes or learn to identify species of local flora. I got to high school, and then college, without any clear sense that I should become a scientist or that I would enjoy this particular vocation.
In my first four semesters of college, I took the usual variety of courses and grappled with their many fascinating questions. Why did the Vietnam War start? What do Buddhists really believe? How did E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End illustrate his directive of “Only connect”?
Though fascinating, these questions also seemed horribly intractable. One could cite evidence from a primary or secondary source to support one interpretation or another, but there didn’t seem to be any standard way of resolving disagreements besides deferring to the authority of the professor.
Science was different, though. Professors presented the so-called “scientific method” as a fair, objective way of evaluating the strength of different possible explanations. Accrue some background knowledge via reading and observation; pose a hypothesis; design an experiment to test the hypothesis; determine whether the data collected are consistent with the predictions of the hypothesis; and discard, modify, or retain the hypothesis as appropriate.
It all sounded so orderly, so sensible, so feasible. Even if I did not have a great big hypothesis of my own, I could imagine taking someone else’s hypothesis out for a spin, say, using a species that hadn’t been studied yet. This “scientific method” seemed simple enough for novices like me to follow, yet powerful enough to reveal fundamental insights about the world. I was hooked – not on any particular molecule or technique or theory, but on the logical flow of the process itself. I’ve considered myself a scientist ever since, and I now present the scientific method (often called the process of science) to my own students – because it’s relevant to their futures (whether or not they become scientists), but under-taught and poorly understood – more or less as it was presented to me.
“But wait!” cry various smart, articulate people such as Terry McGlynn and Brian McGill. “That’s not how scientific research really works!” Indeed, UC-Berkeley has an entire website, How Science Works, devoted to debunking and revising what it calls the “simplified linear scientific method.”