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The Scientific Method Exposed!

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment


I never thought it would really happen to me! I know it sounds cliché, but… really… I didn’t! I had already come to the conclusion that the rate of crime is simply overblown in the mass media… however, probability decided to drop in and pay a visit. A simple reminder of the nature of life in general, and that sooner or later you’re going to experience something that is so deviated from your normal expectations of this world that you can do nothing else but sit back and watch how it affects you.

My day started particularly well, actually, when I walked out my door yesterday on one of the first, real spring days in Houston, Texas. The air has a distinct quality in it when the real change occurs between the seasons here, and the extra electric nature of new life is more palpable.

I strode to my car, unlocked it, got in, and while tossing my purse onto the passenger seat, I noticed a rectangular-shaped ‘thing’ on the floorboard. Having no frame of reference for such a ‘thing’ occurring there before, my mind failed to grasp a definition. I sat up in a state of confusion, and saw my middle dash looked odd as well. It didn’t click at first… I actually consciously observed the few seconds of time-lag. Up until now, 100% of the instances where I’d gotten in my car, I had observed the same interior surroundings. I was now dealing with a new exception to the rule that my mind had created, which was “Every time I enter my car, I see the same scene.” Having a different scene before my eyes was, well, quite an education.

The measurable time-lag experienced occurred because my observation did not immediately yield a known conclusion, thus the synapses in my brain searched my databanks and linked together some kind of correlation that yielded a brand new determination. My conclusion, after LITERALLY not recognizing what I was seeing, was “Oh, wow, my center air vents are ripped out, and my stereo is about an inch more forward than it usually is… someone must have tried to rip it out!” Someone tried to yank my car stereo. ‘Tried’ is the operative word here, because it was obviously amateur night at the Apollo.

I’ve learned over the past few years to not panic, thanks in part to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, loads of meditative practice, and self-inflection, so I was able to actually observe the event from a 3rd-party perspective instead of immediately entering a state of shock. What I learned from this experience is fascinating to me, and hence led to the basis for this article on exploring the realm of science as the methodology which humans inherently use to learn about the world around them and their place within it. Yes, this methodology is emergent indeed, as you will soon see.

In short, everyone uses the scientific method every day, all the time. This is simply the process by which we intake data through our 5 senses from our environment, create databanks in our brains, and then use whatever critical thinking skills we learn from other humans to process/link this data… and, of course, draw conclusions. So, everyone is a scientist! Yes, even those of you too cool for school, deal with it. Most people don’t consciously run through the steps of the scientific method to make decisions in their lives. However, the method is simply the description of this process which happens naturally and, after a certain point in our childhood development, instantly for everyone. Most simply put, your environment shapes who you are by providing the type of data you are exposed to and, it is very important to note, the processes by which you use to make decisions based on the data you’ve gathered. These processes for decision making are also learned from your interaction and observation of other people’s processes.

We emulate those around us as we learn; we take on their processes. You can see this when two children are playing together, they will most likely take on roles of pretend which emulate the adults in their lives. One will pretend to smoke a cigarette like her mother does and the other will pretend to speak as his father does. My political science professor in college once gave us a lesson on logical thinking. She told us several stories about her mother attempting to protect her from physical harm, her mom would tell her things like “Don’t touch the light socket! Rats will jump out of it and eat your eyeballs!!!” Of course, most likely no one has ever experienced this event, but in the attempt to control my professor’s behavior as a child, her mom had also unconsciously given her a lesson in logic. My professor shared with the class how it took her years to figure out how to think rationally and retrain herself to respond to certain situations without jumping to abject fear of the irrational or unknown. She ended this treatise by saying “Please, teach your kids logic, let them know the truth, because simply aiming to protect them will cause misery.” I’ll never forget that speech.

Another valid point is that if we don’t know why and how people do things differently elsewhere, our data set is somewhat limited, thus we do not have the opportunity to allow that data to enter into our decision-making process. Ignorance is not to our ultimate advantage in a world where it is swiftly becoming more evident that the globe is truly so interconnected on many levels, ecologically and otherwise.
When I introduced these concepts at the ZDAY 2010 event, an audience member stated with a surprised look, “Interesting way to look at it, I’ve never thought of it that way.” Indeed, I can say with some confidence that not one person goes about their day in every moment consciously using the scientific method. Can you imagine how that would go! “Now that I have stated the hypothesis as ‘I need a volume of 8 ounces of water to fulfill my biological conditions.’ to address the question of ‘Why do I feel thirsty?’, owning that my research into the subject produces vast sources of data as studies have already taken place regarding water as a key element in the functioning of biological organisms. Thus I will perform the experiment of drinking 8 ounces of water and will record the results of this experiment every 2 minutes to determine if my thirst does indeed subside as theorized…”

As you can see, consciously using this process in EVERY moment is not the most efficient way of using the method, hence, the emergent nature of the methodology itself. Every time you drink a glass of water, and you are not thirsty any longer, you reinforce this conclusion without ever having to consciously think about it. Wow – right?!?!
The steps themselves are simple really. Step one is “Ask A Question.” Umm, done and done. Isn’t this mostly what we do as humans anyway? Step two is “Gather Relevant Research.” Okay, this is the biggie as far as I’m concerned, the one that got away. People tend to skip or glaze over this one quite frequently, even within communities where the scientific method is known and revered. Ego alert: you don’t know it all just because you sat through a few classes! Step three is “Construct A Hypothesis.” Easy enough, because you have already researched your topic you should have plenty of different ideas how to answer your question. Pick the one with the most research behind it to start. Step four is “Test Your Hypothesis By Doing An Experiment”. Duh!!! How will you know if your proposed answer is right if you never test it out? And the closer to real world conditions the better; experiments don’t just happen in a laboratory, that’s actually the exception. Step five is “Analyze Your Data and Draw (a) Conclusion(s).” Okay, so you ran your test. Does the evidence say you could be right or wrong? And finally, step six is “Communicate Your Results.” Tell other people, even if your experiment proved your supposed answer was wrong. Give others the opportunity to test out your theory as well.
All experiments are important, because they either rule out or leave open possible answers to our questions! Thomas Edison himself said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” How could he have been such a prolific inventor if not for ruling out so many alternatives, and learning from his failed experiments? This is how the scientific method truly works.
Okay, so now you know the method! However, how do we know how true or real a conclusion is once we’ve reached one? How do we know we’ve analyzed the data using the best statistics and methods? How do we know we didn’t start out with a bias built into our experiment which skewed the results from the start? Is there a better way to test the hypothesis? How can we trust previous findings within researched reports and previously gathered data? These are questions that scientists deal with everyday, and these are equally valuable concerns when using the scientific method in our everyday lives.
Yes, I do mean VALUABLE concerns. These concerns can shed valuable insight on conclusions embraced by popular culture and the mainstream ideologies, but don’t get addressed frequently enough by most of us. These concerns are truly the crux of the matter since the method is only as good as it’s implementation. Faulty or limited data = faulty or limited conclusions. It’s that simple. If you think that the sky is blue because your dad told you that it’s a gigantic mirror reflecting the blue of the oceans, and you have never heard or attempted to find any information to the contrary – this will be your conclusion. It’s very poetic, it’s a nice story, but is it true?
So, we need to check our results over and over. Ask different questions about our results and probe them from different angles. We have to make sure what we know is reliable, and when used, the scientific method allows us to move in the direction of greater and greater certainty. How cool is that!
To end, I’ll simply state that I am certainly glad I had another experience that shook my perception up a bit. After shoving the air vents back into the dash, I found out my car stereo actually still works! So, there’s no real harm done as far as I’m concerned. I relish these out-of-the-ordinary occurrences now, because I learn so much and they allow me to expand my views more and more. Encompassing as full a spectrum of understanding as possible has always been one of my main goals in my life, and I hope that I have encouraged this within you. Experience life… and know that the more you do, the more your banks fill with varied data. And the more you know about processing that data, the truly better off we all are on this shared planet.

Karen E. Siragusa