The “scientific method” you learned is wrong

About this time of year children across the nation are attending science fairs, desperately trying to explain their projects in 5 minutes or less and hoping they don’t get too many hard questions.  For years I have had a pet peeve with science fair which is, the “scientific method” we all learned in school – Question, Research, Hypothesis, Procedure, Results, Analysis, Conclusion – is total crap.

My understanding of how bad the standard scientific methods is grew out of my experiences helping with science fair projects when I was a high school teacher.  I realized while trying to shove the standard scientific method down my students throats that something didn’t work.  Mainly, they had a hard time coming up with any question worth answering.   Then, if they did enough research to form a hypothesis they probably just found the answer.  Otherwise their hypothesis was probably based on nothing more than intuition.  Now that I often serve as a science fair judge, I’m more convinced that it’s all wrong.

I also came to realize that the standard scientific method had nothing to do with what I did in graduate school.  In my entire graduate career I probably had two hypotheses, and neither one of them, it turned out, could be proven or disproven with the techniques and systems we were studying.  I still wrote papers and a dissertation and walked away with my Ph.D.

My problems were finally answered when I learned about a study in which Reiff et al. interviewed a bunch of science researchers across several disciplines about their research behavior.  They came away not with the commonly known scientific methods but with an “inquiry wheel” in which everything revolved around asking questions.  As a scientist you ask a question, then devise and carry out and experiment.  The results create more questions than they answer, so you go read the literature.  Then you try another experiment, and the data from that experiment leads to more questions.  Questions form a hub on the wheel with observations, interpreting and reflecting on results, and/or talking about it with your friends over a cup of coffee form the spokes.

My advice now to students doing science fair is to carry out their experiments the way real scientists do – just jump in.  Do an experiment.  You don’t need much background, just try it.  If it doesn’t work (or even if it does), great, do another one.  Both the overarching question and the answer to that question evolve over the course of many rounds of experiments.  Maybe your last experiment actually has a hypothesis, based on your previous data, your literature research and your conversations with others.

My hope is that everyone catches up with this and soon.  It would help if Google and Intel (who sponsor large science fair competitions) jumped on board as well.  But the old scientific method is deeply ingrained.  I once did a professional development experience with a bunch of other teachers doing field research.  Literally, we were in a field, doing research on vegetation.  One of the teachers was really bothered that just went out and starting pulling up plants to take back to the lab.  “Shouldn’t we have a hypothesis?” he asked the grad student in charge, who, somewhat perplexed, responded “Well, um, I guess.”  The correct response is a flat no.  But that response is based on an improved understanding of what science is and what scientists do that everyone who has ever done a science fair project is going to have to wrap their heads around.