Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is the scientific method working?

Many of you know that the big push in K-12 science education for a long time has been to stress "the scientific method" at the expense of the actual discoveries that have been made and that inform the development of new hypotheses. And of course we know that a lot of these ideas "trickle up" to college-level education as well.

OK, I guess my bias is showing here. I think this movement is a natural outgrowth of the reaction to earlier practices of focusing on content only at the expense of a good understanding of how science works. In addressing that earlier problem, I think we've gone a little overboard in at least two ways:

1. I think we have swung the pendulum to the opposite imbalance between "how science is done" and "what science has discovered." I think we are now seeing some movement back to the center (hopefully for a more stable balance).

2. In trying to find a way to teach "how science is done" we've distilled it to a rigid formulaic summary that does not reflect the reality of "how science is really done." Again, I think we are seeing some movement to expand beyond a simple definition of "the scientific method" toward more discussion of the variety of methods, some of them sloppy yet productive, used in modern science.

In the first chapter of our textbook Anatomy and Physiology we've addressed "the scientific method" in a way that provides the standard formula for how science is done while also sufficiently explaining that it's flexible and dynamic . . . and that methods and approaches evolve. Then throughout the book, we often bring up examples of how scientists, using the process of science, have made some core discoveries.

[NOTE: See my previous article on Nobel Prize winners to see how I use this award to illustrate the process of science.]

Occasionally, reviewers chide us for including this "unnecessary" information. I guess they are looking for a "just the answers, ma'am" when we are more interested in telling a story. Often, the story includes how we know what we know. And why what we know now is different from what we thought we knew a few years ago. It's our attempt to achieve a balance between "what we know" and "how we know it."

We also sometimes get a note from a reviewer or copyeditor who wants to "tighten up" the language in our text by changing vague statements like "some scientists believe that . . . " to "scientists believe that . . . " --or simply dropping the reference to scientists and stating something as a simple fact. But usually those passages are intentionally vague, to imply a significant level of uncertainty or disagreement about the fact that is stated. We believe that this helps inform students regarding how science really works. This approach would not work for every concept . . . it would muddy up the clarity of the narrative . . . but a few indications here and there of the dynamic, slippery nature of human science is useful.

Then throughout my course, I bring in more recent stories of discoveries . . . or even failures . . . in science so that students deepen their understanding of where all the concepts crammed into their A&P course comes from. And by doing so, I hope they won't be too surprised when breakthroughs are "taken back" or a new muscle is discovered (or maybe not) after all these years of human dissections.

[NOTE: One of the main reasons I produce The A&P Professor blog, newsletter, and website is to share what I'm learning as I scan the recent literature for these stories.]

One of the issues that really dogs scientists . . . and by extension students of science, too . . . is how scientific information is disseminated. In journals, of course. But there are SO MANY stories of good science that could really spark a new line of discoveries being blocked from publication by factors (power struggles, politics, etc.) that have nothing to do with the quality of the research.

A new essay in the online journal PLoS Medicine talks about a disturbing pattern in scientific publication that may adversely affect what we can learn from science . . . and how the scientific story will continue to unfold . . . .

Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science.
Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O
(2008) PLoS Med 5(10): e201 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201

This article explains in a straitforward way how "the current system of publication
in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic."

If you want to deepen your own understanding of the modern process of science . . . so that you can pass it along to your students . . . I highly recommend this article.

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