The frustrating scientific method

December 27, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

I just finished reading an excellent article by Jonah Lehrer of Wired: “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” The article focuses on the scientific method. We all know that science makes steady progress as it spins its ideas and conducts experiments, right? Wrong.

Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

Sometimes, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the entire theory needs to be revamped or discarded, breaking the conceptual continuity.  Therefore, the practice of science is often not smooth sailing, contrary to popular conceptions.  A good approach to dealing with the uncooperative data is for the scientist to make sure that he or she doesn’t work alone:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

Image by Nicholas_ at istock (with permission)

These comments ring true to me. Once again, skepticism to the rescue, and we need to turn to “outsiders” because we hesitate to murder our own children (this is a phrase I heard in a writing seminar–a reason for a separate editor). It’s important to remember, though, that bringing others into the conversation doesn’t always work. It has to be the right chemistry, where everyone is geared to the end result and where the criticism of the work needs to be savage though each of the participants nonetheless shows appreciation for each others’ hard work. We should strive for the benefits of group endeavors while avoiding groupthink:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.



Category: scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    Key phrase stood out for me: “elaborate theories”.

    Making predictions in the soft sciences must cause nightmares. “In a majority of the biological sampling, for most of the time, we should expect to maybe see…”

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