Posted by: SteveInCO | 26 Feb 2012

Misteaching the Scientific Method

The day my last post got published (I had written it a couple of days earlier and queued it) I read an article in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (May 2012 issue, and yes, I know it’s only February but their calendar seems to run a couple months fast) that expanded–greatly–on a point I touched on in that post.  I said:

Contrary to something many creationists (and other scientific illiterates) claim, you do not need to be able to run experiments in a laboratory in order to do science, as would be the case for chemistry or nuclear physics.  There are sciences where you look at the world, collect information, and use that information to try to understand the world.  The most obvious of these is astronomy.  You cannot experiment on stars (imagine the property tax on a laboratory big enough!) and only rarely on other material in outer space, yet no one seems to doubt that it is a science.  Instead of experimenting to test some hypothesis, you look at more and more things in more and more sophisticated ways, with more and more sophisticated instruments to make sure that everything you see continues to be consistent with the hypothesis.

I realized, as I read the editorial, that I was a bit harsh damning people who believe this as illiterates.  You see, this is precisely what is taught in elementary and secondary school, and you cannot really blame people for believing it.

I’ll now quote the editorial:

As commonly explained in school, the scientific method is as follows (the exact wording may vary with the source, but the essence is the same):

1.  A phenomenon or group of related phenomena is observed, but not necessarily understood.

2.  A hypothesis–e.g., a mathematical model–is formulated to explain the observation.

3.  The hypothesis is used to make predictions about what might happen under different conditions.

4.  Experiments are done to test the predictions.

5.  If the experiments yield results that don’t fit the predictions, those become a new set of observations for 1. and we start over, developing a new hypothesis and doing experiments to test its new predictions.

Yep, that’s pretty much how I remember it from my K-12 education.

It’s Step 4 that I believe is misleading.  It states that experiments must be done.  And that’s not true.

I mentioned the example of being unable to experiment on stars, and the editorial mentioned the exact same example.  (It looked spookily like I had read the editorial before I wrote my radioisotope post, but in fact, I had not.)  No one doubts that astronomy is a science, yet by its nature one cannot do lab experiments.  But what you can do, after forming a hypothesis from observing a few hundred stars… is proceed to check it against billions more stars.  The universe is itself the laboratory.

Similarly with paleontology.  Paleontologists can go find more fossils–or subject ones found and sitting in a museum’s collection somewhere to new analysis–to check their hypothesis.  But they cannot re-run evolution (and even if they did, it would certainly produce a different history of life).  Geologists, similarly, can go find new rock samples, or subject ones from 40 years ago to more sophisticated analysis that wasn’t possible back then.

I believe that the scientific method is taught the way it is in high school mainly because the educators are trying to tie it in to science projects and science fairs, where one is pretty much expected to run experiments.  Unfortunately, teaching it this way ultimately allows creationists to attack science studying the past history of life as not really science (because no experiment is run) and similarly for astronomy.  As such I think the consequences of this oversimplification are dire indeed.

On a more positive note, I do know of a case where someone did quite well in a science fair with an astronomy project.  He did not grow mold in a refrigerator or run some simple physics experiment; rather he went out several nights in a row and recorded the position of the moon against the stars to show that the moon moves west to east in the sky (rather than the more intuitive east to west).  If I recall correctly he won his local science fair and moved on to a regional fair.  So even if he didn’t “run an experiment” the judges clearly understood the actual scientific method.

I just wish they’d be a little more careful teaching it.

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