The Process of Science: Key concepts in thinking like a scientist

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Did you know that science is not just a collection of facts to be memorized? The real process of science is a creative way of uncovering knowledge and interpreting the meaning of new discoveries. It is an approach to solving problems that can help us make better decisions in everyday life.

Several years ago, a student working on an undergraduate research project in my laboratory approached me with concern. "I'm doing something wrong," she exclaimed. I had seen her research results and knew she was making good progress, so I was surprised to hear that she was having a problem. Over the next several days we went through her experimental procedure, we reviewed her instrumental methods, and we examined her results; yet I could not find a problem with her work. Finally, I asked her the obvious question, "Why do you think you're doing something wrong?" "Because I'm not getting what you said I should get," she replied with some frustration.

Her response startled me. After discussing it with her, I realized that she was mistaking a hypothesis for a foregone conclusion. I had not told her what she "should" get, but I was familiar with the existing literature and research in the area and we had discussed some published hypotheses several weeks earlier. When faced with valid research data that did not fit these predictions, I recognized that she had a novel finding and came to change my hypothesis. But she was interpreting her results as a mistake.

Why was I startled by her response? Because despite almost four years of an intensive college science major behind her and several years of high school science experience, this student still subscribed to the common misconception that science is a rigid exercise in proving a pre-conceived point – that there is little creativity or discovery in science, but rather it is a tedious exercise in proving something we already know to be true. I was also startled because I realized that although I spend many hours with my students, teaching them about scientific research procedures, experimental design, instrument operation, and the scientific literature, I was still not teaching them about science.

But how can this happen? This was an excellent student who had a near perfect "A" grade average, and I was trying to be conscientious in my teaching and advising. Why was there still such a difference between the way she and I perceived her results?

Traditional approaches to teaching science

The root of the problem goes far deeper than our interaction over the course of the year. Throughout school, science is often portrayed in textbooks and even in the classroom as a series of "known" facts and figures; for example, electrons are negatively charged, DNA is a double helix, earthquakes occur at plate boundaries, etc. Unfortunately, the process by which these discoveries were made and how they fit into scientific progress is often ignored in the classroom.

Figure 1: J.J. Thomson (1856 - 1940), a British physicist and Nobel laureate credited for discovering the electron.

Even when material is added to science lectures about the discovery of these concepts, they are often presented as an obvious and inevitable conclusion. For example, J.J. Thomson's experiments with a cathode ray tube are commonly discussed in chemistry classes (Figure 1). Few teachers present the critical components of the process that humanize Thomson, however, like the fact that when Thomson first presented his ideas on electron charge to the scientific community, a colleague asked him if he was joking! These details help illustrate the nature of scientific discoveries, the skepticism that accompanies new discoveries, and the process of review and validation they undergo before they are accepted. Yet this is rarely conveyed in the classroom along with the content, so it's no wonder these ideas seem like inevitable conclusions.

So where do we learn about how science is practiced? Those fortunate enough to be exposed to scientific research begin to understand because they are engaging in the process of science. After my experience with this student, we discussed the idea that science is not just a collection of known facts but a process by which we come to know things about the natural world. We discussed the purpose of experimentation, the role of reviewing the existing literature to identify possible research hypotheses, and the need to remain open to various interpretations of the data. Participating in mentored research is one way to learn how science is practiced.

This student went on to complete and publish her research, enroll in a PhD program, and become a qualified scientist in her own right (Mauclair, Layshock, & Carpi, 2008). When asked recently, she did not recall this specific interaction, but she did recall that despite having "The Scientific Method" drilled into her in many science classes, she had little understanding of what science entailed before her undergraduate research experience.

Thinking like a scientist

So scientists need to understand how science is done, but why would this matter to anyone not interested in becoming a scientist? Because science and a scientific way of thinking impact more aspects of our daily lives than you might think. Scientific advances in nutrition and medicine have helped raise life expectancy in the United States by more than 20 years in the last century alone. On a personal level, a scientific way of thinking can help you weed through conflicting reports about nutrition and make better choices about healthy eating. Advances in chemistry, physics, and materials science have led to faster computers and smaller cell phones – letting you take pictures with your phone and send them to your friends. And advances in modeling and meteorology have helped us better predict and plan for natural disasters like floods and hurricanes – something we all hope never to encounter but can now be better prepared for when they do occur.

Understanding science is more than memorizing that the electron has a negative charge. It is understanding how scientific advances are made, validated, and interpreted. It is being able to interpret an elected official's position on stem cell research, climate change, or space exploration. And it is having the ability to take in new information on diet, exercise, or disease and apply it to our own lives. Understanding the process of science and scientific problem solving can help us make better decisions every day.

What is the process of science?

Figure 2: Sampling water on Lake Pontchartrain. These scientists must not only collect data but analyze and interpret it as well. The broader scientific community will then validate these interpretations through established procedures. Photo by D.K. Demcheck, courtesy of the USGS.

The process of science refers to the practices employed in science to uncover knowledge and interpret the meaning of those discoveries. Textbooks often simplify and misrepresent this process as a single "Scientific Method" in which a lone scientist moves from observation through questioning to experimentation, but the process of science is much more robust, dynamic, and diverse. At the same time, however, there are core principles that unite the diverse disciplines within science. Biologists, chemists, geologists, physicists, and all other scientists objectively gather data about the natural world using multiple research methods, employ similar techniques to analyze these data, form hypotheses based on the data, and work within a global community of individuals and organizations contributing to science (Figure 2). These core principles and methods have evolved over time and distinguish science from other disciplines.

This is the first in a series of modules that detail these different aspects of the process of science by highlighting examples from history and connecting those stories to current research. These modules can be read together to create a comprehensive answer to the question, "What is science and how does it work?" But they can also be used individually to better understand, say, how a scientist works, what an experiment exactly is, or how a scientific theory is developed. Twelve key concepts were used to guide the development of these modules, and these key concepts provide a framework for understanding the material in this series:

Key Concepts in the Process of Science

  1. Science is a process of investigation into the natural world and the knowledge generated through that process.
  2. Scientists use multiple research methods to study the natural world.
  3. Data collected through scientific research must be analyzed and interpreted to be used as evidence.
  4. Scientific theories are testable explanations supported by multiple lines of evidence.
  5. Scientific knowledge evolves with new evidence and perspectives.
  6. Science benefits from the creativity, curiosity, diversity, and diligence of individuals.
  7. Science is subject to human bias and error.
  8. The community of science engages in debate and mitigates human errors.
  9. Uncertainty is inherent in nature, but scientists work to minimize and quantify it in data collection and analysis.
  10. Scientists value open and honest communication in reporting research.
  11. Science both influences and is influenced by the societies and cultures in which it operates.
  12. Science is valuable to individuals and to society.

Each module concludes with 3-6 key concepts that add detail to the twelve broad ideas listed above. The material contained in these modules is not presented as a distinct discipline within science, but rather as a web that links all scientific disciplines together. Through reading these modules, we hope you'll see that science is not a simple set of facts and terms to be memorized. It is a robust process that helps us to better understand our surroundings and place in the universe. It is also accessible to anyone, both as a way of thinking that you can use every day, and as a career path where diverse backgrounds and perspectives are an advantage. Whether you become a scientist or a banker or a novelist, understanding the process of science is critical to your participation in society as a citizen.

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