Science as Inquiry: GED Test Prep (page 5)
Whatever their discipline, all scientists use similar methods to study the natural world. In this article, you will learn what abilities are necessary for scientific inquiry and what lies at the root of all science.
All sciences are the same in the sense that they involve the deliberate and systematic observation of nature. Each science is not a loose branch. The branches of science connect to the same root of objective observation, experiments based on the scientific method, and theories and conclusions based on experimental evidence.An advance in one branch of science often contributes to advances in other sciences, and sometimes to entirely new branches. For example, the development of optics led to the design of a microscope, which led to the development of cellular biology.
Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry
A good scientist is patient, curious, objective, systematic, ethical, a detailed record keeper, skeptical yet open-minded, and an effective communicator. While there are certainly many scientists who don't posses all these qualities, most strive to obtain or develop them.
Patience is a virtue for any person, but it is essential for a person who wants to be a scientist. Much of science involves repetition. Repetition to confirm or reproduce previous results, repetition under slightly different conditions, and repetition to eliminate an unwanted variable. It also involves waiting—waiting for a liquid to boil to determine its boiling point, waiting for an animal to fall asleep in order to study its sleep pattern, waiting for weather conditions or a season to be right, etc. Both the repetition and the waiting require a great deal of patience. Results are not guaranteed, and a scientist often goes through countless failed attempts before achieving success. Patience and the pursuit of results in spite of difficulties are traits of a good scientist.
Every child asks questions about nature and life. In some people, this curiosity continues throughout adulthood, when it becomes possible to systematically work to satisfy that curiosity with answers. Curiosity is a major drive for scientific research, and it is what enables a scientist to work and concentrate on the same problem over long periods of time. It's the knowing of the how and the why, or at least a part of the answer to these questions, that keeps a scientist in the lab, on the field, in the library, or at the computer for hours.
Objectivity is an essential trait of a true scientist. By objectivity, we mean unbiased observation. A good scientist can distinguish fact from opinion and does not let personal views, hopes, beliefs, or societal norms interfere with the observation of facts or reporting of experimental results. An opinion is a statement not necessarily supported by scientific data. Opinions are often based on personal feelings or beliefs and are usually difficult, if not impossible to measure and test. On the GED Science Exam, answer choices that are opinions will almost always be incorrect answer choices. A fact is a statement based on scientific data or objective observations. Facts can be measured or observed, tested and reproduced. A well-trained scientist recognizes the importance of reporting all results, even if they are unexpected, undesirable, or inconsistent with personal views, prior hypothesis, theories, or experimental results.
Scientists who are effective experimentalists tend to work systematically. They observe each variable independently, and develop and adhere to rigorous experimental routines or procedures. They keep consistent track of all variables and systematically look for changes in those variables. The tools and methods by which changes in variables are measured or observed are kept constant. All experiments have a clear objective. Good scientists never lose track of what the purpose of the experiment is and design experiments in such a way that the amount of results is not overwhelming and that the results obtained are not ambiguous. The scientific method, which will be described later in this chapter, forms a good basis for systematic research.
Good record keeping can save scientists a lot of trouble. Most scientists find keeping a science log or journal helpful. The journal should describe in detail the basic assumptions, goals, experimental techniques, equipment, and procedures. It can also include results, analysis of results, literature references, thoughts and ideas, and conclusions. Any problem encountered in the laboratory should also be noted in the journal, even if it is not directly related to the experimental goals. For example, if there is an equipment failure, it should be noted. Conditions that brought about the failure and the method used to fix it should also be described. It may not seem immediately useful, but three years down the road, the same failure could occur. Even if the scientist recollected the previous occurrence of the problem, the details of the solution would likely be forgotten and more time would be needed to fix it. But looking back to the journal could potentially pin down the problem and provide a solution much more quickly. Scientific records should be clear and readable, so that another scientist could follow the thoughts and repeat the procedure described. Records can also prove useful if there is a question about intellectual property or ethics of the researcher.
Reading scientific journals, collaborating with other scientists, going to conferences, and publishing scientific papers and books are basic elements of communication in the science community. Scientists benefit from exploring science literature because they can often use techniques, results, or methods published by other scientists. In addition, new results need to be compared or connected to related results published in the past, so that someone reading or hearing about the new result can understand its impact and context.
As many scientific branches have become interdisciplinary, collaboration among scientists of different backgrounds is essential. For example, a chemist may be able to synthesize and crystallize a protein, but analyzing the effect of that protein on a living system requires the training of a biologist. Rather than viewing each other as competition, good scientists understand that they have a lot to gain by collaborating with scientists who have different strengths, training, and resources. Presenting results at scientific conferences and in science journals is often a fruitful and rewarding process. It opens up a scientific theory or experiment to discussion, criticism, and suggestions. It is a ground for idea inception and exchange in the science community.
Scientists also often need to communicate with those outside the scientific community—students of science, public figures who make decisions about funding science projects, and journalists who report essential scientific results to the general audience.
Skepticism and Open-Mindedness
Scientists are trained to be skeptical about what they hear, read, or observe. Rather than automatically accept the first explanation that is proposed, they search for different explanations and look for holes in reasoning or experimental inconsistencies. They come up with tests that a theory should pass if it is valid. They think of ways in which an experiment can be improved. This is not done maliciously. The goal is not to discredit other researchers, but to come up with good models and understanding of nature.
Unreasonable skepticism, however, is not very useful. There is a lot of room in science for open-mindedness. If a new theory is in conflict with intuition or belief or previously established theories, but is supported by rigorously developed experiments, and can be used to make accurate predictions, refusal to accept its validity is stubbornness, rather than skepticism.
Consider a chemist in the pharmaceutical company who, after much effort, designs a chemical that can cure brain tumors without affecting healthy brain cells. No doubt the scientist is excited about this result and its potential positive impact on humanity. Once in a while, however, experimental rats given this drug die from heart failure within minutes after the drug is administered. But since it happens only occasionally, the scientist assumes that it's only a coincidence, and that those rats that died had heart problems and would have died anyway. The scientist doesn't report these few cases to the supervisor, and assumes that if it's a serious problem, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would discover it, and nobody would get hurt. While the scientist has good intentions, such as making the benefits of the new drug available to people who need it, failing to report and further investigate the potential adverse effects of the drug constitutes negligent and unethical behavior.
Scientists are expected to report data without making up, adjusting, downplaying, or exaggerating results. Scientist are also expected to not take credit for work they didn't do, to obey environmental laws, and to consider and understand the implications of the use of scientific knowledge they bring about.
Understandings about Scientific Inquiry
Why study science? A scientist seeks to observe, understand, or control the processes and laws of nature. Scientists assume that nature is governed by orderly principles. They search for these principles by making observations. The job of a scientist is to figure out how something works, or to explain why it works the way it does. Looking for a pattern, for cause and effect, explanation, improvement, developing theories based on experimental results are all jobs of a scientist.
The Scientific Method
There are many ways to obtain knowledge. Modern scientists tend to obtain knowledge about the world by making systematic observations. This principle is called empiricism and is the basis of the scientific method. The scientific method is a set of rules for asking and answering questions about science. Most scientists use the scientific method loosely and often unconsciously. However, the key concepts of the scientific method are the groundwork for scientific study, and we will review those concepts in this section.
The scientific method involves:
- asking a specific question about a process or phenomenon that can be answered by performing experiments
- formulating a testable hypothesis based on observations and previous results (i.e., making a guess)
- designing an experiment, with a control, to test the hypothesis
- collecting and analyzing the results of the experiment
- developing a model or theory that explains the phenomenon and is consistent with experimental results
- making predictions based on the model or theory in order to test it and designing experiments that could disprove the proposed theory
In order to understand something, a scientist must first focus on a specific question or aspect of a problem. In order to do that, the scientist has to clearly formulate the question. The answer to such a question has to exist and the possibility of obtaining it through experiment must exist. For example, the question "Does the presence of the moon shorten the life span of ducks on Earth?" is not valid because it cannot be answered through experiment. There is no way to measure the life span of ducks on Earth in the absence of the moon, since we have no way of removing the moon from its orbit. Similarly, asking a general question, such as "How do animals obtain food?" is not very useful for gaining knowledge. This question is too general and broad for one person to answer.
Better questions are more specific—for example, "Does each member of a wolf pack have a set responsibility or job when hunting for food?" A question that is too general and not very useful is "Why do some people have better memories than others?" A better, more specific question, along the same lines, is "What parts of the brain and which brain chemicals are involved in recollection of childhood memories?"
After formulating a question, a scientist gathers the information on the topic that is already available or published, and then comes up with an educated guess or a tentative explanation about the answer to the question. Such an educated guess about a natural process or phenomenon is called a hypothesis.
A hypothesis doesn't have to be correct, but it should be testable. In other words, a testable hypothesis can be disproved through experiment, in a reasonable amount of time, with the resources available. For example, the statement "Everyone has a soul mate somewhere in the world" is not a valid hypothesis. First of all, the term soul mate is not well defined, so formulating an experiment to determine whether two people are soul mates would be difficult. More important, even if we were to agree on what soul mate means and how to experimentally determine whether two people are soul mates, this hypothesis could never be proved wrong. Any experiment conceived would require testing every possible pair of human beings around the world, which, considering the population and the population growth per second, is just not feasible.
Disproving a hypothesis is not a failure. It casts away illusions about what was previously thought to be true, and can cause a great advance—a thought in another direction that can bring about new ideas. Most likely, in the process of showing that one hypothesis is wrong, a scientist may gain an understanding of what a better hypothesis may be. Disproving a hypothesis serves a purpose. Science and our understanding of nature often advance through tiny incremental pieces of information. Eliminating a potential hypothesis narrows down the choices, and eliminating the wrong answers sometimes leads to finding the correct one.
In an experiment, researchers manipulate one or more variables and examine their effect on another variable or variables. An experiment is carefully designed to test the hypothesis. The number of variables in an experiment should be manageable and carefully controlled. All variables and procedures are carefully defined and described, as is the method of observation and measurement. Results of a valid experiment are reproducible, meaning that another researcher, following the same procedure should be able to obtain the same result.
A good experiment also includes one or more controls. Experimental controls are designed to get an understanding of the observed variables in the absence of the manipulated variables. For example, in pharmaceutical studies, three groups of patients are examined. One is given the drug, one is given a placebo (a pill containing no active ingredient), and one is not given anything. This is a good way to test whether the improvement in patient condition (observed variable) is due to the active ingredient in the pill (manipulated variable). If the patients in the group that was given the placebo recover sooner or at the same time as those who were given the drug, the effect of pill taking can be attributed to patient belief that a pill makes one feel better, or to other ingredients in the pill. If the group that was not given any pill recovers faster or just as fast as the group that was given the drug, the improvement in patient condition could be a result of the natural healing processes.
Analysis of experimental results involves looking for trends in the data and correlation among variables. It also involves making generalizations about the results, quantifying experimental error, and correlation of the variable being manipulated to the variable being tested. A scientist who analyzes results unifies them, interprets them, and gives them a meaning. The goal is to find a pattern or sense of order in the observations and to understand the reason for this order.
Models and Theories
After collecting a sufficient amount of consistently reproducible results under a range of conditions or in different kinds of samples, scientists often seek to formulate a theory or a model. A model is a hypothesis that is sufficiently general and is continually effective in predicting facts yet to be observed. A theory is an explanation of the general principles of certain observations with extensive experimental evidence or facts to support it.
Scientific models and theories, like hypotheses, should be testable using available resources. Scientists make predictions based on their models and theories. A good theory or model should be able to accurately predict an event or behavior. Many scientists go a step beyond and try to test their theories by designing experiments that could prove them wrong. The theories that fail to make accurate predictions are revised or discarded, and those that survive the test of a series of experiments aimed to prove them wrong become more convincing. Theories and models therefore lead to new experiments; if they don't adequately predict behavior, they are revised through development of new hypotheses and experiments. The cycle of experiment-theory-experiment continues until a satisfactory understanding that is consistent with observations and predictions is obtained.
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