Use Scientific Thinking

Scientific Thinking: Using the Scientific Method in High School

Read this quotation carefully and thoughtfully.  The scientific method isn’t just  used in a laboratory. It is the basis for all intelligent thinking.

The invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure you’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is and it rests on the premise that any idea there is can be attacked.   —  Douglas Noel Adams

What is the Scientific Method?

You were probably taught the scientific method in elementary or middle school. Depending on your science book or teacher, it looked something like this.

  1. Observation
  2. Question
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Experiment
  5. Analysis of data
  6. Conclusion

The problem is that there really is no such thing as THE Scientific Method. Different kinds of information and questions require Different Scientific Methods. The method used to study the effects of different chemicals or temperatures on fruit flies, is useless in astronomy. Methods used on lab animals cannot be used on human beings.

Sometimes, as you might expect, we  use an experiment.

Sometimes, as with studying the stars, we invent and use new strategies and measurement tools to collect data.

Sometimes, as when studying human beings, we sometimes rely on surveys.  Doctors asked people with lung cancer about many of their habits. An analysis of this data showed that a a large number of those with lung cancer were heavy smokers and and smoked  for many years. Non-smokers were less likely to get lung cancer.

This isn’t a clear case of cause and effect however. Why do some heavy smokers not get lung cancer? And why do some non-smokers get lung cancer? We cannot  use this information to prove that smoking causes lung cancer. We can conclude that many years of heavy smoking is one of several factors leading to lung cancer.

What is Scientific Thinking?

Many students will only take a few required science courses but it is important that we all learn to use scientific thinking. Claude Bernard describes Scientific Thinking this way:

Man does not limit himself to seeing; he thinks and insists on learning the meaning of phenomena whose existence has been revealed to him by observation. So he reasons, compares facts, put questions to them, and by the answers which he extracts, tests one by the other.        — Claude Bernard

According to this description, Scientific Thinking includes:

  1. Observation
  2. Learning
  3. Reasoning
  4. Comparing facts
  5. Asking questions
  6. Testing possible answers

While the order is different, it looks very much like what we know as the “Scientific Method.”

What are Scientific Thinkers?

a Scientific Thinker is not necessarily a scientist, or even a student studying science.  No matter what we study or do in our lives, when we think logically and intelligently, we can all be Scientific Thinkers.

1. The Scientific Thinker is a careful observer. She often wonders about what she observes. He might notice things that are strange, unexpected, or unexplainable. Lets say our Scientific Thinking notices that dozens of butterflies are all on one flowering bush, while few or none are on a nearby flowering bush. That’s strange.

2. The Scientific Thinker asks  questions, questions that can be answered. He won’t ask what a butterfly is thinking about… because he can’t ask the butterfly, but he could ask which flowers the butterfly goes to most frequently.

3. She is constantly wondering, forming hypotheses. Maybe the butterfly goes to flowers that smell best. Or it could be the flowers with the best nectar… the taste or the nutrients in the nectar. Or it could be attracted to the color, possibly even colors that are not visible to us. Or they might all like to stick together. One butterfly landed on this bush and the others followed. Birds seem to do this. It could also be a combination of factors.

4. The Scientific Thinker might do some research, checking the internet, checking the library, asking people who study butterflies. This might produce satisfactory answers.

5. The Scientific Thinker might choose to explore this further, developing a strategy to tests his hypotheses, one at a time.

6. The Scientific Thinker would collect, organize, and analyze his data.

7.  She would then use logic and critical thinking to come to a conclusion. She does not “Jump to a Conclusion.” She takes her time.

8.  He states his conclusion, not as a proven fact, but as the answer that best fits the data, aware that further data might cause his to come to a different conclusion.

9. The Scientific Thinker applies these principles in other subjects. When writing an essay or research paper, they examine supporting evidence and examples to see if they are relevant and really lead to the conclusions.

Two Examples

1. At one time in history it was clear to everyone that the earth was the center of the universe. It was obvious that the sun and the starts all moved around the earth. When new evidence was found, it was rejected. Common sense could not accept the idea that the earth was moving around the sun. It seemed like nonsense.

2. When I was in high school, the theory of tectonic plates was described in my science book as an example of a crazy theory. People had noticed that the continents were a lot like puzzle pieces. They could fairly easily fit together. This led to the theory that the continents had all been a single land mass.

This was obviously nonsense. Everyone knew continents could not move. Many years went by. New evidence was found showing that continents can and do move, but very slowly. Now the idea of tectonic plates, the ideas that the continents were once connected but have moved apart, is accepted as fact.

What seems like nonsense to one general becomes accepted as truth to another generation. And then, with further data, a new idea can be accepted as truth.  In math, proof is often seen as absolute, based on definitions and logic.With science, truths can never be proved beyond all doubt.

All interpretations made by a scientist are hypotheses, and all hypotheses are tentative. They must forever be tested and they must be revised if found to be unsatisfactory.     — Ernst Mayr

You might also be interested in How to do an Experiment


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