Tag Archives: scientific method

How can scientists work with cultural humility?

Coming from a background in science and coming into public health and not ever hearing ‘cultural humility’ in the sciences was very telling for me. Because culture is not something that’s emphasized, it’s not talked about in a relevant way. There have always been very clear barriers present for particular minorities in science. You can

The scientific method, revisited

What really is the scientific method in research?
bsr_scientific_methodMaybe your high school biology teacher made you recite the scientific method. If you talk to most practicing researchers, they would probably say this method is “more a set of guidelines than an actual rule”; kind of like the pirate’s code. Publications disseminate research using the key terms of the scientific method: background, hypothesis, experimental design or methods, results and conclusion. However, this approach may not reflect the complex reality of conducting research, nor optimize productivity. This article evaluates the scientific method by investigating different ways to approach research, specifically the strong inference model.

Some may argue that without the backbone of the scientific method, the research process is convoluted and complex. But is complexity something to be avoided or embraced? Consider the ecologist, Eric Berlow, as he simplifies complexity in his TED talk. He supports the claim that complexity is not complicated but, rather, simplifies our understanding by encompassing the whole network. Sound like an oxymoron? This abstraction is distilled to a concrete example with a more direct interpretation of an infographic on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan (this infographic looks as overwhelming as food webs over the past ten years). Is the scientific method stripping science of its innate, remarkable complexity, or distilling it into a digestible brew?

Such complexity can arise through logic trees, and imagine designing experiments using one! In 1964, John Platt presented the concept of strong inference, stating that the development of logic trees and alternative hypotheses are essential to rapid advancement of scientific inquiry. Platt exposes the weakness of the classical scientific method’s single-hypothesis. Actively pursuing an answer to one specific hypothesis may cause confirmation bias at each level of the scientific method, including background research on the question, modes of approaching the question experimentally, data collection and interpretation. Blind and double-blind experiments attempt to control for this, but if the methodology is biased, does the data quantified still lack bias? Platt suggests with anecdotal evidence that greater scientific progress is made through inductive reasoning (metaphorically, casting a fishing net into an ocean of unknowns) and conducting thoughtful experiments to eliminate alternative hypotheses and produce subsequent logical ones, instead of simply going to one fishing spot at a time through the deductive reasoning, as outlined by the classical scientific method.

Science and the Data Revolution

The scientific method is obsolete.

This is a bold statement in a room filled with scientists who have spent the better portion of their lives striving for the gold standard of science set forth by 3rd grade science fair projects:

  1. Observe the world.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Make a hypothesis.
  4. Devise a testable experiment with one variable and everything else controlled.
  5. Compile the data and analyze the results.
  6. Revise the experiment or hypothesis and repeat as necessary until they match.
  7. Form a conclusion.
  8. Justify how your manageable (relatively simple) model makes predictions on a much wider scale.

But the predominating focus on producing data to answer a question, which up until now has served our scientific community faithfully, may no longer be the best method for useful discovery, according to Stanford scientist Atul Butte, MD, PhD.  We are amidst a data revolution that necessitates that good science be best performed backwards; instead of questions demanding data, we now have data demanding questions.