We’re All Scientists Now

By Donovan Makus

 

When you think of science, what do you see in your mind’s eye? If you’re like most people I asked, you imagine researchers in white coats standing in a lab, working with chemicals and sophisticated instrumentation, or someone hiking 10 kilometers to sample some remote stream. Or perhaps you imagine something more theoretical; perhaps chalkboards filled with complex derivatives and integrals? While I can’t see what you saw–that power develops only in a few chosen fourth-year students–it’s little mental exercises like this one that help us examine our own preconceived cognitive structures (or schemas, to those who have taken an intro social science course) surrounding topics and objects in our world, and how our own schemas may reflect biases or tunnel vision. The answers I got spoke to a narrow definition–a view of science as something performed only in defined settings, yet the principles of the scientific method have become a key part of life as we know it, from areas as different as sports and politics; even in our everyday lives, activities as mundane as grocery shopping involve the scientific method. We’re really all scientists in our own way.

Before looking at how we are all everyday scientists in our own unique ways, it would be useful to look at exactly what constitutes the scientific method. Human beings have been conducting research and experiments for millennia, with early scientists such as Pythagoras and Archimedes making key contributions to the natural sciences that we still use today. However, the modern conception of the scientific method has a more philosophical origin, springing forth from the debates between the empiricists and rationalists of the 17th century, although there were many other notable milestones and debates in the path to the modern scientific method along the way. To this day, the exact definition of the scientific method is not fixed as the philosophical underpinnings of science are examined, and some modern philosophers and scientists hold that there is no universal “scientific method.” Nonetheless, this path leads us to our modern understanding of the scientific method, one grounded in empiricism. It is based upon observing our world, be it through our own senses directly or indirectly through instrumentation, and then forming questions about our observations based on past knowledge and experiences. These questions then allow us to formulate hypotheses, or predictions about why our observations occur, which allows us to test our predictions, enabling a closer examination of our hypotheses and, finally, attempting to derive meaningful conclusions from our results. This is the most common form of the scientific method used today.

 

Having given one model of the scientific method, the more common hypno-deductive model, we can turn back to how we use the scientific method in our everyday lives. Each day we make many decisions, most of them not passing into conscious thought. However, some of our decisions do require more deliberation, and this is where we have adopted the scientific method. One good example of this, familiar to many students, is caffeine usage and sensitivity. For the 99% of us who consume caffeine on a regular basis, we’ve been able to build, through experimentation with our own body’s response, knowledge of how we respond to caffeine, and how we can use it to help us get through busy days and final exams (as distant as they may seem right now). While we may not formally sit down and draw up an experiment to see what having that second coffee at 6:00 PM will do, we have that spark of wonder, and for the majority who are caffeine sensitive, we learn from the resultant poor night’s sleep. Time management is another area where we apply the scientific method, with varying results and degrees of success. We can experiment with the allocation of time for each of our courses versus the other time pressures in our lives. Here, we can form predictions about test outcomes based on how much time we spent studying for the test, and while there are sometimes pleasant surprises,  more often than not, at least in my experience, there is a relationship between studying time and test scores. These are just some examples of how we, knowingly or not, apply the scientific method to our individual lives.

 

This usage of the scientific method isn’t restricted to our own lives; it has revolutionized many fields. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the modern professional sports business. Movies such as Moneyball have shown us how applying scientific principles from the scientific method has revolutionized fields that have previously been largely based on intuition and experience. Gone are the days when coaches coached based off of only their own experience and gut feelings; today’s athletes are backed by teams of sophisticated data scientists, keen to discover the answer to the most fundamental question of sports: how do we win? Today’s sports media environment is filled with data analysts, often pitted against the “old timers” for the benefit of the cameras. Alas, for all of us who count ourselves as suffering Oilers fans, analytics can only do so much. Sports isn’t the only field where we see this spread of the scientific method; one of the oldest pursuits, and arguably one of the most animalistic, is keen to use these new found techniques to their benefit as well: politics. I’ve had the great fortune to listen to the tales of a retired Member of Parliament talk of parades, barbeques, and community gatherings. Conspicuously absent from all these tales is the modern focus on micro-targeting voters based off of targeted messaging that characterizes modern politics. It’s no surprise that data scientists such as Nate Silver, who successfully predicted 99% State election outcomes in the 2008 and 2012 American Presidential Elections, dominate the media coverage. Here too, the scientific method is integrated with the art of the discipline.

 

Now, this individually applied scientific method is far from perfect, I’m sure we can all remember strange beliefs we held as children based on naive realism. I, for instance, thought that humans couldn’t breathe hot air. This observation stemmed from my own difficulty breathing the stuffy air in a sauna, failing to account for the added humidity, and lead to a false conclusion that warm air is difficult to breathe. We also have issues with our own inherent bias and misconceptions. Moving beyond our own frame of reference, both the fields of politics and sport I used as examples have had notable flops in the usage of the scientific method. Moneyball is ultimately the tale of how a first-round playoff losing MLB team added analytics to become a first round playoff losing MLB team, admittedly with an excellent regular season record. The 2016 American election serves as a reminder that models are far from perfect. Yet true science isn’t built only on successes, but on failures, namely in learning from them. Models are refined, new approaches developed, and the field improves as a result.

This isn’t to suggest that we are all research scientists or experts–far from it–nor that we apply the scientific method correctly. Part of the scientific method is building up a background knowledge that allows you to formulate questions and hypotheses, knowledge that may take years to fully develop in some academic fields. For our more mundane questions, our life experience acts as a background, and while lived experiences are useful, they suffer from the key limitation that they only apply to a sample size of one. This brings us to another limitation: performing useful scientific research requires replicates, controls, and careful data collection and analysis–steps we are unlikely to take in our everyday lives. It is safe to say that we will not be publishing the results of our personal homegrown science anytime in the near future, but this doesn’t devalue applying these approaches in our everyday lives.  
While our homegrown science may lack the credentials, rigorous experimental design, and other features of formal science, it still forms an important part of our lives.Thinking of the scientific method as something only performed by people in white coats clustered in labs obscures how universal the scientific method has become to our very way of thinking and how it has revolutionized fields far and wide. In today’s fast shifting world, it is the ability to apply skills and mental processes, such as the scientific method, to new problems and, thereby, find solutions that enable us to find success.

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