The Scientific Method: How Science Works

April 11, 2011 9:00am - 10:30am

Stephen Jenkins

What is the scientific method? What key issues should we consider when thinking about how science works? Each scientist would probably give a different answer, and these answers would no doubt differ from those of a random sample of nonscientists. Which means my list is idiosyncratic, but I hope it will help you learn how to report science stories.

Scientists ask various kinds of questions, and when you're reporting on a scientist's work it’s important to know the type of question they're considering. There is no recipe for doing science. Instead, science is about using evidence to make and test explanations of nature. There are many different kinds of evidence, no one of which is superior to the rest. Each type of evidence—random or systematic observations, comparisons, experiments, models, syntheses—has strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a critical observation or experiment provides evidence as conclusive as a smoking gun at a crime scene, but it pays to be skeptical if your interviewee with a new result claims this. More often, different lines of evidence must be weighed to reach a tentative conclusion. For science that has implications for society, decisions can’t wait for absolute certainty. Finally, science works well because it is a social process: if I publish an important result, it will draw critics, so it behooves me to anticipate those criticisms and balance enthusiasm with skepticism about my own work. In this introductory session, I will flesh out some of these ideas and then introduce a case study to illustrate the messy workings of science.