November 6, 2014

WHAT’S UP DOC?: The Personal Scientific Method

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You’re sitting in a class or meeting, quietly listening to a speaker in a room full of people, when you realize, too late, that you may have found a squeaky chair. You shift a bit to the left and, to your horror, brrrrp — to the whole room, it sounds like you lack self-control.

It was definitely the chair! Although you are a little gassy. Fortunately, you’re an intelligent person, and you can figure this mystery out. First, you simply wait, sitting still. No follow-up sound. Shift back to your left: brrrrp. Whether it was the chair or your gut, it happened again. This is a replicable phenomenon. Now shift to your right: brrrrrrp again.

One final test: Use some of that gas to your advantage and compare the chair sound to the intentional real deal. BRRP! By now everyone is looking at you — noses pinched — but you’re satisfied that the chair sounds nothing like the real thing. It was totally the chair, the first time.

Congratulations, you’re a scientist.

What made your investigation scientific? You had a hypothesis: This chair, and not you, is making this uncomfortable sound when you move in it. You had a negative control: When you didn’t move, no sound came out, so you can reasonably guess that any sound produced would in fact be attributable to your movement. You could replicate your results: When you shifted to the left again, the same phenomenon happened. You had a positive control: You tested what the real thing sounded like, so that you would know how it compared to the chair sound. And you even were able to use your hypothesis to make a testable prediction: If shifting to your left made this noise, then shifting to your right should probably make the same noise, and it did.

We don’t usually associate the scientific method with the mysteries we encounter in our everyday lives. Most of our day is simple enough that we can get through on our intuition. In the above situation, most people would probably make a guess and move on, content with not really knowing. That is usually okay, but it is also important to remember that there are better ways of knowing things.

For most of us, the scientific method is an abstract concept, a half-remembered list of ideals that someone else’s profession abides by. The reality is actually much simpler: The scientific method is what we as a global community have decided is the best way of finding out about our world.

Although associated with science, this way of thinking didn’t begin with science and isn’t restricted to it; any of us could agree, for example, that just because you sneezed right before a traffic light turned green twice in a row doesn’t mean your sneezes have power over the traffic lights. You could show that by, for example, holding in your sneeze at the next light until it turned green — a negative control, even if we’re not used to thinking of it that way.

The nice thing is we can get used to thinking of things this way, and learn more about reality than we could otherwise. Someone who experiments with adding or removing one ingredient at a time from a recipe is going to end up knowing more about their dish than someone who changes it haphazardly, and the rigorous chef will reap the tasty benefits.

You can also steer clear of false claims more easily. tells me that, as an Aquarius, I’m either shy and quiet or boisterous and energetic. As an experienced squeaky-chair-scientist you probably immediately realize that this is not a falsifiable hypothesis; it’s not testable, because it can’t be wrong if it makes vague predictions, or if it couches every prediction in “may” or “could.” Claims that don’t make testable predictions don’t provide any useful information.

While it’s nice to have a grip on the key tools for knowing things, the reality is most of the time this expertise doesn’t show us how much we know, it shows us how much we don’t or can’tknow, which is just as important. No matter who or where we are, we’re constantly surrounded by ideas that can’t be held up to a scientific standard of accuracy. “This unique event never would have happened if my political party were in charge!” “That guy who cut me off definitely did it because he’s an a-hole!” “Modern art is dumb and isn’t really art. Just look at those monochromatic lines!”

We can’t know these things because none of them make testable predictions, but that doesn’t stop people from saying them and believing them anyway, treating guesses as fact. Even when we do make claims that are testable, we often forget that they’re just hypotheses that need experimental confirmation; our biases prevent us from questioning our biases. Cornell professor David Dunning of the famous Dunning-Kruger effect wrote an excellent article on just this topic that you should definitely check out.

So how do we deal with all of this uncertainty? You can see for yourself if you read any scientific paper — acknowledge the fact that you may be wrong, and that you can’t really know until you rigorously test your assumptions. We can learn one thing from horoscopes: If you don’t actually know something, remember to throw in those “mays” and “coulds,” if you have to make a claim at all. In short, the most important part of the scientific method is learning to be humble and accept your own ignorance.

It seems like honesty is something we all value and expect from each other, and ourselves, with the unspoken caveat that it’s okay to say something untruthful if you had no way of knowing any better. What we often forget is that we do have a way of knowing things better, a system specifically designed for that purpose. We may call it the scientific method, but it works just as well for anybody, white coat or not. Why not use it?