Now that officials say it is critical that people “follow the science,” we should reflect a moment on what that might mean. Does it mean to rely on the authority of doctors and scientists to give us the truth, or does it mean to respect the process of the scientific method?
What is the Scientific Method?
This method must include making an observation, making an inquiry, stating an hypothesis, forming a testable prediction, testing the hypothesis, then using the results to verify the hypothesis. Failing verification, a new testable hypothesis must be put forward and each of the steps repeated until adequate verification is achieved. Finally, publishing the results and having the results peer reviewed must follow. The scientific method proved itself more reliable over the centuries in finding the truth than reliance on authority.
The Many Legs On a Fly
Aristotle is sometimes called the Father of the Scientific Method. He was not. Aristotle made many contributions to knowledge, but he did insist that flies have four legs. On that authority natural history texts reported four legs on a fly for a thousand years. Aristotle said it. It was true. Much of the darkness in the Dark Ages came from such authority determined truth. Aristotle was a central authority for the Church, but a poor father for the scientific method. He might more honestly be called the father of the observational method. Observation is the critical first step in the scientific method.
The intervention of Church authority into natural science locked knowledge in place for a millennium. The mistakes of flies’ legs would have been resolved instantly if any form of scientific investigation was possible. It was not and scientific investigation stopped in the West until the 14th Century. Even then, it was tainted with heresy and accusations of wizardry.
Through the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the Roman Empire, the Islamic scholars continued to expand upon Greek science and mathematics. Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhazan was born in the 10th Century and made the next major contribution to the scientific method. Alhazan developed a robust experimental method for deciding what worked and what did not. He began with the knowledge of the Greeks like Euclid and Archimedes. He enhanced this learning experimentally to develop complex systems and many inventions. The Mongols eventually stopped the advance of Islamic learning. Most of the ancient knowledge was lost soon enough and the Islamic world became engrossed in mathematical puzzles. Beautiful architecture resulted, but the Islamic experimental techniques and the Greek observational approach only slowly leaked into Europe over the next centuries.
The Franciscan monk, Roger Bacon, benefited in the 13th Century from both the Classical observational methods and experimental techniques developed in Islamic schools. Roger Bacon introduced the next component of scientific method, empiricism. Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes primarily from the senses. Roger Bacon developed a model of experimental science based on his study of optics. His techniques were used by others to extend experimental science to include new medicines and health care of the body. Most of the steps of the scientific method were in place at this point.
Missing still was some method to verify a testable hypothesis. Francis Bacon developed and popularized inductive reasoning. This is often known as bottom up reasoning where details are synthesized to form a general conclusion. Induction combined observations with experimental results to come to a conclusion.
Rene Descartes took another path with top down analysis using general facts and deriving specific details from them. Most people are very familiar with the science of deduction from Sherlock Holmes. Crime fiction where detectives use observed facts to solve crimes is very satisfying; however, Sherlock does not purely demonstrate deduction. He used a sophisticated combination of induction and deduction to solve crimes. In this, he is more like Sir Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton practiced this “Holmsian” synthesis of inductive and deductive reasoning. He is the father of the scientific method. He moved systematically from induction to deduction and back in his proofs. He also left clear experimental records that set the standard for documentation of experiments to the present.
Cloud computing and quantum computing mark the next step in scientific proof. These technologies allow many hypotheses to be tested at once, sometimes in parallel. This parallel and iterative investigation allows an accelerated proof of an hypothesis or of many hypotheses. The development of the COVID-19 vaccines in months, rather than years, is a demonstration of these new methods in action. It is probably still the traditional scientific method, but the quantity of data and the complexity of the proofs make it difficult to verify. These advances, particularly in genetics, biochemistry, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics are believed by some to be something new in scientific inquiry and proof. A new method.
Computing logic is beyond our concern here. Teaching logical analysis and the scientific method to young people is more critical than ever. With these skills, they can rationally examine the world around them.
How to Teach the Scientific Method at Home
The best method for teaching the scientific method in the homeschool, whether or not the family is using a curriculum package, is to create a Perpetual Science Fair. This is a simple. The student keeps accurate records of observations in notes during regular classes. These observations become material for the fun part of science. Experiments. Experimentation is the opportunity to learn the basic reasoning involved in the scientific method. The Perpetual Science Fair should proceed logically.
The student should:
- Make observations about something in the current lesson. Use inductive reasoning to come up with a hypothesis that seems to answer the question.
- Think about how to test the hypothesis using an “if – then” sentence.
- Design the experiment to test the hypothesis by deciding what to measure and how often to take measurements.
- Create two groups in the experiment. One group as a control group where conditions will be maintained as close as possible to the original configuration. The second group is the experiment has variables to be modified to examine the accuracy of the hypothesis.
- Set up the experiment to control all the variables except the one being tested.
- Make the planned measurements and record the qualitative, descriptive data, (color, health, and happiness, usually presented in paragraphs or tables), and quantitative data (numerical data, like height, weight, and number of items that showed a change, analyzed with statistics and presented in graphs in a notebook.) Date all observations.
- Analyze the data showing the differences between the control data and experimental data.
- Use deductive reasoning to decide whether the results support or reject the original hypothesis. Research whether your findings are supported by others. The Internet is a good source for peer information.
- Report the results, explaining the original ideas and how the experiments were conducted, then describe the conclusions.
Unexpected Benefits from this Approach
The process of the Perpetual Science Fair in the homeschool can teach more than simply the scientific method in the hard sciences like biology, chemistry, geology, and physics.
The process can also demonstrate the questionable use of scientific method in the soft sciences. Soft sciences are those disciplines that refer to themselves as science like Sociology, Psychology, and Environmentalism, but lack a strong empirical foundation. Trying to build experiments in these subjects can demonstrate the problems with providing testable hypotheses and replicating experiments. Much of the peer-reviewed proof in these fields comes from statistical analysis and data science, so a growing familiarity with the protean nature of data is a benefit.
Pursuing this approach in other classes can demonstrate that the scientific method has no value in non-scientific inquiry in fields like Politics, Statistics, Communications and Marketing. Political experts often use “science” as a slight-of-hand distraction to hide the flawed results of their findings. They say to trust them because, like Firesign Theatre, they “have a degree in Science.”
Over time, the student can learn to apply the scientific method in scientific subjects, and learn how the method cannot work in non-scientific subjects. “Trust but verify” to avoid tom-foolery.