Archive for scientific method

What is the Scientific Method?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 25, 2015 by telescoper

Twitter sent me this video about the scientific method yesterday, so I thought I’d share it via this blog.

The term Scientific Method is one that I find it difficult to define satisfactorily, despite having worked in science for over 25 years. The Oxford English Dictionary  defines Scientific Method as

..a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

This is obviously a very general description, and the balance between the different aspects described is very different in different disciplines. For this reason when people try to define what the Scientific Method is for their own field, it doesn’t always work for others even within the same general area. It’s fairly obvious that zoology is very different from nuclear physics, but that doesn’t mean that either has to be unscientific. Moreover, the approach used in laboratory-based experimental physics can be very different from that used in astrophysics, for example. What I like about this video, though, is that it emphasizes the role of uncertainty in how the process works. I think that’s extremely valuable, as the one thing that I think should define the scientific method across all disciplines is a proper consideration of the assumptions made, the possibility of experimental error, and the limitations of what has been done. I wish this aspect of science had more prominence in media reports of scientific breakthroughs. Unfortunately these are almost always presented as certainties, so if they later turn out to be incorrect it looks like science itself has gone wrong. I don’t blame the media entirely about this, as there are regrettably many scientists willing to portray their own findings in this way.

When I give popular talks about my own field, Cosmology,  I often  look for appropriate analogies or metaphors in television programmes about forensic science, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which I used to watch quite regularly (to the disdain of many of my colleagues and friends). Cosmology is methodologically similar to forensic science because it is generally necessary in both these fields to proceed by observation and inference, rather than experiment and deduction: cosmologists have only one Universe;  forensic scientists have only one scene of the crime. They can collect trace evidence, look for fingerprints, establish or falsify alibis, and so on. But they can’t do what a laboratory physicist or chemist would typically try to do: perform a series of similar experimental crimes under slightly different physical conditions. What we have to do in cosmology is the same as what detectives do when pursuing an investigation: make inferences and deductions within the framework of a hypothesis that we continually subject to empirical test. This process carries on until reasonable doubt is exhausted, if that ever happens. Of course there is much more pressure on detectives to prove guilt than there is on cosmologists to establish “the truth” about our Cosmos. That’s just as well, because there is still a very great deal we do not know about how the Universe works.




Emotion and the Scientific Method

Posted in Biographical, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 10, 2013 by telescoper

There was an article in today’s Observer in which four scientists from different disciplines talk about how in various ways they all get a bit emotional about their science. The aim appears to correct “the mistaken view that scientists are unemotional people”. It’s quite an interesting piece to read, but I do think the “mistaken view” is very much a straw man. I think most people realize that scientists are humans rather than Vulcans and that as such they have just as many and as complex emotions as other people do. In fact it seems to me that the “mistaken view” may only be as prevalent as it is because so many people keep trying to refute it.

I think anyone who has worked in scientific research will recognize elements of the stories discussed in the Observer piece. On the positive side, cracking a challenging research problem can lead to a wonderful sense of euphoria. Even much smaller technical successes lead to a kind of inner contentment which is most agreeable. On the other hand, failure can lead to frustration and even anger. I’ve certainly shouted in rage at inanimate objects, but have never actually put my first through a monitor but I’ve been close to it when my code wouldn’t do what it’s supposed to. There are times in that sort of state when working relationships get a bit strained too. I don’t think I’ve ever really exploded in front of a close collaborator of mine, but have to admit that one one memorable occasion I completely lost it during a seminar….

So, yes. Scientists are people. They can be emotional. I’ve even known some who are quite frequently also tired. But there’s nothing wrong with that not only in private life but also in their work. In fact, I think it’s vital.

It seems to me that the most important element of scientific research is the part that we understand worst, namely the imaginative part. This encompasses all sorts of amazing things, from the creation of entirely new theories, to the clever design of an experiment, to some neat way of dealing with an unforeseen systematic error. Instances of pure creativity like this are essential to scientific progress, but we understand very little about how the human brain accomplishes them. Accordingly we also find it very difficult to teach creativity to science students.

Most science education focuses on the other, complementary, aspect of research, which is the purely rational part: working out the detailed ramifications of given theoretical ideas, performing measurements, testing and refining the theories, and so on. We call this “scientific method” (although that phrase is open to many interpretations). We concentrate on that aspect because we at have some sort of conception at least of what the scientific method is and how it works in practice. It involves the brain’s rational functions, and promotes the view of a scientist as intellectually detached, analytic, and (perhaps) emotionally cold.

But what we usually call the scientific method would be useless without the creative part. I’m by no means an expert on cognitive science, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a strong connection between the “emotional” part of the brain’s activities and the existence of this creative spark. We’re used to that idea in the context of art, and I’m sure it’s also there in science.

That brings me to something else I’ve pondered over for a while. Regular readers of this blog will know that I post about music from time to time. I know my musical tastes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me for a moment. Some of the music (e.g. modern Jazz)  I like isn’t exactly easy listening – its technical complexity places a considerable burden on the listener to, well, listen. I’ve had comments on my musical offerings to the effect that it’s music of the head rather than of the heart. Well, I think music isn’t an either/or in this respect. I think the best music offers both intellectual and emotional experiences. Not always in equal degree, of course, but the head and the heart aren’t mutually exclusive. If we didn’t have both we’d have neither art nor science.

In fact we wouldn’t be human.

The Meaning of Research

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 8, 2012 by telescoper

An interesting email exchange yesterday evening led me to write this post in the hope of generating a bit of crowd sourcing.

The issue at hand concerns the vexed question of the etymology and original meaning of the word “research” (specifically in the context of scholarly enquiry). The point is that the latin prefix re- usually seems to imply repetition whereas the meaning we have for research nowadays is that something new is being sought.

My first thought was to do what I always do in such situations, which is reach for the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wherein I found the following:

Etymology: Apparently < re- prefix + search n., after Middle French recerche (rare), Middle French, French recherche thorough investigation (1452; a1704 with spec. reference to investigation into intellectual or academic questions; 1815 in plural denoting scholarly research or the published results of this) … Compare Italian ricerca (1470). Compare slightly later research v.1

Interestingly, my latin dictionary gives a number of words for the verb form of research, such as “investigare”, most of which have recognisable English descendants, but there isn’t a word resembling “research”, or even “search”, so these must have been brought into French from some other source. The prefix re- was presumably added in line with the usual treatment of Latin words brought into French.

Most of the brain cells containing my knowledge of Latin died a long time ago, but I do recall from my school days that the prefix re- does not always mean “again” in that language, and alternative meanings have crept into other languages too. In particular, “re-” is sometimes used simply as an intensifier. I remember “resplendent” is derived from “resplendere” which means to shine (splendere) intensely, not to shine again. Likewise we have replete, which means extremely full, not full again.

This led me to my theory, henceforth named Theory A, that the french “recherche” and the italian “ricerca” originally meant “to search intensely, or with particular thoroughness” as in a scholar poring over documents (presumably including the Bible). Support for this idea can be found here where it says

1570s, “act of searching closely,” from M.Fr. recerche (1530s), from O.Fr. recercher “seek out, search closely,” from re-, intensive prefix, + cercher “to seek for” (see search). Meaning “scientific inquiry” is first attested 1630s…

Being a web source, one can’t attest to its reliability and the dates quoted to differ from the OED, but it shows that at least one other person in the world has the same interpretation as me! However, Iin the interest of balance I should also quote, for example,  this dissenting opinion which is also slightly at odds with the OED:

As per the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the word research is derived from the Middle French “recherche”, which means “to go about seeking”, the term itself being derived from the Old French term “recerchier” a compound word from “re-” + “cerchier”, or “sercher”, meaning ‘search’. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1577.

My correspondent (and regular commenter on here), Anton, suggested an alternative theory which is based on an idea that can be traced back to Plato. This reminded me of the following explanation of the purpose of scholarship by the Venerable Jorgi in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose:

..the preservation of knowledge. Preservation, I say. Not search for… because there is no progress in the history of knowledge … merely a continuous and sublime recapitulation.

Plato indeed argued that true novelty and originality are impossible to achieve. In the Dialogues, Plato has Meno ask Socrates:

“How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? “

And Socrates answers:

“I know what you want to say, Meno … that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Theory B then is that research has an original meaning derived from this strange (but apparently extremely influential) Platonic idea in which “re-” really does imply repetition.

We scientists think of the scientific method as a means of justifying and validating new ideas, not a method by which new ideas can be generated, but generating new ideas is essential if science can be really said to advance. As one article I read states puts it “We aim for new-search not re-search. It is new-search that advances our understanding of how the world works.”

My research suggests that it’s possible that research doesn’t really mean re-search anyway but I can’t say I have any evidence that convincingly favours Theory A over Theory B. Maybe this is where the blogosphere can help?

I know I have an eclectic bunch of readers so, although it’s unlikely that an expert in 16th Century French is among my subscribers, I wonder if anyone out there can think of any decisive evidence that might resolve this etymological conundrum? If so, please let me have your contributions through the comments box.

In the meantime let’s subject this to a poll…