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A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method by Stephen S. Carey

by Nathaniel Bluedorn

Stephen S. Carey teaches the scientific method in less than 150 pages. This book is geared for students in upper high school or the college level. It divides the scientific method into three steps, (1) observation of a problem or an anomaly, (2) explaining the phenomenon by creating a theory, and (3) testing the theory.

Mr Carey says these are important things to keep in mind when doing these three steps:

Step 1, Observation

When you are looking for an answer to a problem, and you are observing the problem to find out more about it: (1) Keep a written record of your observations that you can refer back to. (2) Ask someone else to look over your observations to see if they see flaws in them. (3) Try to be aware of the assumptions you may be making about how you observe your data. (4) Look at the problem or the anomaly with a healthy dose of skepticism. Is it just a coincidence? (5) Be aware of how much our expectations and assumptions affect how we observe things.

Step 2, Explain

Explanations in science are sometimes called hypotheses or theories. Hypotheses are more tentative and narrow in scope, while theories are broader and have a more developed body of evidence, and a law is something well established and almost universal.

There are different types of explanations: (1) explanations for the cause of things, and (2) explanations for a correlation or relationship between things.

Ockham’s Razor is the principle that when there are competing explanations, each of which can explain a problem, then we should chose the explanation that contains the least number of puzzling notions.

Step 3, Test

A scientific test needs to be (1) verifiable, (2) falsifiable, and have a (3) clear distinction between success and failure. Verifiability means that if the test succeeds, then nothing else but our theory could have explained the success. Falsifiability means that if the test fails, then we can know that our theory was false. Every test needs to have a clear distinction between success and failure. We can’t allow our biased observations decide this.

Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience often centers around controversial questions, problems, and anomalies that pseudo-scientists raise to our attention. They then advocate a solution that questions the views of mainstream scientists. There is nothing wrong with questioning mainstream science; this is how much advancement has been made. But pseudo-scientists often keep their audience unaware of the extent to which their new theory disagrees with established scientific theory, and how their theory has not been rigorously tested by independent scientists.

There are several fallacies that lead to pseudoscience:

  1. False Anomalies – Intentionally omitting facts that would show how something isn’t as strange as it seems. This is often used in UFO books.
  2. Questionable Arguments from Elimination – If we do a test to see if people have telepathy, and the results appear to show that people do receive messages that can’t be explained by pure luck, then does telepathy exist? This uses an ‘Either, Or’ argument. All we can conclude is that something odd is happening. Telepathy isn’t necessarily the answer. There are other explanations just as viable as telepathy, including the possible existence of little imps who whisper in people’s ears.
  3. Illicit Casual Inferences – Saying that one thing caused another, when there is only a correlation, or post hoc ergo propter hoc. This fallacy ignores that everything could very well be a coincidence.
  4. Unsupported Analogies and Similarities – Showing the similarities between one very speculative theory and a different well-established theory in science. This fallacy often ignores many differences between the two things being compared and only emphasizes the similarities.
  5. Untestable Explanations – Presenting a theory that, by definition, cannot be tested. The theory may explain every type of evidence in a way that cannot be falsified. Conspiracy theories often use this fallacy.
  6. Redundant Predictions – If I am trying to explain some strange event (a UFO sighting), and I offer a theory, and then I use the very event I’m trying to explain (the UFO sighting) as proof that my theory is correct, then my thinking is going in a circle. I have to present some independent evidence.
  7. Ad Hoc Rescues – Imaginative people can always keep inventing new ideas for explaining away contrary evidence. Every time someone comes forward with a problem for their theory, they invent a new exception to their theory that explains the problem.

Conclusion

This book provides exercises for each chapter. Some of these exercises are pedantic, but some are interesting and useful.

There are not many books teaching the scientific method at a basic level. I don’t think the explanations were always clear enough and the exercises weren’t focused practicing skills. The section at the end on science fallacies was very clear and relevant, and makes that book worth reading.

Copyright June 26, 2004, all rights reserved. 10322 views


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