Bare Bones Biology 214 – Thinking Like a Scientist

Science uses a highly specialized method of asking questions ( in a way that can be answered using measurable facts. A measurable fact is a measurable reality that does not change. People change; the environment changes; facts (by definition) do not change – regardless of some cute book titles. We seem to be able to understand this relative to the sciences of physics and chemistry. I heard on the History Channel: “The speed of light is not just a good idea; it’s a law.” But for some reason we find it very difficult to understand that the same is true of the Law of Life (

140418-flowers-ASC_0246RLSs copyThe scientific method is described below. This is not a universal law but only a tool devised by humans to help us understand the universal laws.

The scientific method acknowledges one of the most basic facts of Life, that Life is a system in which all the parts are processes, or do processes, or result from processes. And all the processes interact or interconnect at many levels to generate the whole, extremely complicated reality. To understand the complex reality, or parts of it, scientists use formalized linear thinking (and writing). Rather than describe the complexity of interacting cycles of Life, they talk or write about one tiny bit of reality at a time. And they control as many as possible of the variables (interconnections) that interact in real life, so that they reduce their questions (and therefore also the answers) as much as possible to their most easily understood simplicity.

The scientific method is a tool that functions to simplify our good questions so that we can get usable, understandable answers. The disadvantage of the scientific method is that it teaches us to believe in simplistic, linear, either/or solutions that are not true in real Life, and also allows us to believe that humans have powers that we do not have in the balanced universe.

My definition of modern basic science is: the study of measurable facts using the scientific method. Basic science is not about winning; good basic scientists really do enjoy learning the right answers to good questions, even if they have to change their own opinions to align them with reality. In fact, those changes are part of the excitement of good basic science.

This is not the popular idea of science, which is more about technology than inquiry. The two disciplines, basic science and technology, are fundamentally different in that technology is all about what people want, and basic science is all about how the universe functions.

140423-plant-ASC_0394RLSss copySome people have a problem when science uses “statistics.” We know that statistics are often misused, but it is not true that good statistics “lie.” Statistics is just another tool that’s useful for scientists in the interpretation stage of the scientific method. The challenge is to do the analysis properly and well. To do the work properly and well often requires more than one person, and that is one important reason for peer review of scientific papers. The work of every good scientist is open to review by other scientists who know equally as much about the topic. In fact, it is open to review by everyone. Including you.

Good scientists know that the scientific method does not tell us what is a true fact. The great power of the scientific method is that it tells us what is not a fact. In the case of climate change, for example, multiple scientists in many fields of expertise were convinced of the reality because of the consistency of all their results. In fact, they were convinced about 10 years before the media would even discuss the issue. And

before that, the same thing happened when AIDS was discovered. We lost ten years to denial, when we could have been dealing with the reality.

If we want to be effective activists, parents, voters, citizens, or if we just want to maximize our personal power in any situation, we should not limit our spirituality, art, or emotionality by tying them to measurable facts — fake or real – and we should not limit our understanding of factual reality by tying it to spirituality, art or emotionality. Instead, if we understand the difference between science and other disciplines, we can get the maximum benefits from all of these important fields of inquiry.

This is Bare Bones Biology, a production of FactFictionFancy and KEOS radio, 89.1 FM in Bryan, Texas. A copyof the podcast can be downloaded at:

The Scientific Method

1. Someone has a question. For example. It seems warmer inside the city than at my house. I wonder if this is generally true? You will hear the word “null hypothesis.” A null hypothesis is a question worded so it can be answered by a yes-or-no experiment: “The average temperature in cities is the same as the temperature outside cities.” The next step is to try to see if the null hypothesis is false (because it is very difficult to prove that anything is always true).

2. Now the person must devise an experiment. Experimental design is an important skill. The good basic scientist wants to know the truth, her goal is not to sell something but to understand something. Therefore, she designs the experiment (as best she can) with no bias or preconception. To do that, she will make sure that all conditions of the experiment are the same except the one(s) she wants to measure. For example, if she is comparing temperature in the city with temperature outside the city, she will take the temperature at the same time of day, and in the same conditions of wind and shade. Thus she “controls” all the variables except one.

3. She then takes the measurements. She must do exactly the same experiment on different occasions, enough times for the result to be statistically significant. Usually that would be at least 100 measurements at each location and condition.

4. She then writes up the results in proper format. Results are reviewed by her peers (other people who are trained and experienced in the same field of study) to make sure the experimental design, the background discussion, and the statistical evaluation are correct, and that the discussion of the resuslts is logical according to what science already knows. Usually the peer reviewers spend time and effort helping to evaluate the data, or the presentation, so that the paper, when it is accepted for publication, is as good as it can be. This is because the goal of the basic scientist is to use the facts to discover the reality, and the reputation of each scientist, the one who does the research and the one who evaluates it, depends on accuracy and valid interpretations.

5. The paper is then published.

6. The process of basic science is not finished when the paper is published, because one paper is only one step in getting together all the information needed to grow our scientific understanding. After publication of an individual’s research, other scientists will be inspired to wonder in new ways about the same question and devise their own experiments. If enough people ask well designed questions in the field, the accurate answers will gradually emerge.