Thursday, September 30, 2010


How To

John Wilkins has started an important project.

John notes that something called "the scientific method" is often the focus of social and political arguments over the demarcation of science from pseudoscience. Those arguments, in turn, can have enormous consequences, as in the case of global warming or proper education.

However, as was the case with the attempt to arrive at a demarcation criteria between science and pseudoscience, the demarcation between the scientific method and all the other nonscientific methods of investigation will not be some bright-line, easy to draw, sum-it-up-in-10-words-or-less rule suitable for grade school textbooks. Of course, most nonscientists wind up with just such a grade school understanding of "the scientific method," often involving a set of rigid steps, such as: Observation --> Hypothesis --> Testing --> Theory --> More Testing --> Law.

Indeed, as John points out, there is no such thing as the scientific method but, instead, "there are many, but like a family portrait, they all have a resemblance, and there are clearly some that have been adopted from outside the family tree." That is no reason to throw up our hands and declare that there is no way at all to distinguish scientific methodology from nonscientific. It's just a messier and, ultimately, imperfect project but still well worth the effort, in that it will assist nonscientists in evaluating conflicting claims to the mantle of science.

John proposes to aid in this task by producing a kind of "operating manual" for nonscientists:

So when a non-scientist approaches scientific reasoning, it pays for them to know how science is done and why, and if they aren't about to undertake a scientific education, or worse, a philosophy of science education, then they don't want to have to deal with these complexities and nuances. This book will be written for them. We aim to provide simple summary explanations of what science does, and justify those practices. Why, for example, do medical researchers use double blind methods? Why do psychologists test null hypotheses? Why are error bars used? How do physicists come up with these increasingly complex and odd theories? And should they do this?

So scientists should follow the series and assist in formulating the manual and nonscientists can help in making it intelligible to people like them. Everyone can, I'm sure, learn something along the way and have fun in the effort.


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How to Support Science Education