I an earlier post I wrote that anyone can be a scientist. The only requisites are to follow the scientific method and ask scientific questions. Scientific questions are those that can generate testable answers (hypotheses). Scientists ask these questions. That seems like a very straightforward concept, right? As it turns out, there is a lot of subtlety involved in asking scientific questions. In fact, I would argue that asking scientific questions is not a science, it’s an art, and I believe that there are three levels of complexity in the process of formulating effective scientific questions
First level: Asking questions within the right framework
While both amateur and professional scientists may be “scientists”, asking minor scientific questions just for fun or curiosity is very different from asking important goal-oriented scientific questions within the context of a funded research project. The relative difference is much the same as the difference between playing in your neighborhood baseball team and playing in the major leagues. At the professional level, more than a decade of training and study is required for participants to both mature and master the intricacies of science and the methods within a particular field of study. This is because the complexities of the questions that are addressed by professional scientists are very unlikely to be answered unless they are articulated within this context. Effective questions are those queried within a framework that leads to their eventual solution.
Second level: Asking questions while having in mind a way to answer them
Some scientists may formulate a question and then seek the answer. This perfectly logical procedure, paradoxically, is not an optimal way of asking scientific questions. This is because it is not enough to ask a question. You need to have an idea or a hunch as to how you are going to answer the question, and this idea or hunch inevitably affects the formulation of the question. The question refines the answer which refines the question which refines the answer and so on. The process is not unlike the one depicted in the lithograph by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher where the first hand draws the second one which in turn draws the first. This process allows for the solution of scientific problems with razor sharp accuracy, and it requires an in-depth knowledge of the fields of science involved, as well as the capacity to integrate, simplify, and pick and choose relevant data from large amounts of potentially conflictive information. The ability to master this process is often the difference between clear thinking and fuzzy thinking among scientists.
Third level: Asking “THE question” type of questions
The Nobel Prize winning biochemist, Hans Krebs, used to tell new arrivals to his lab that he could teach them how to dig, but he could not teach them where to dig. By this he meant that he could teach them all the necessary techniques, ways of thinking, and approaches to answer questions, but what he could not teach them was what questions to ask. To non-scientists (and even to a good number of scientists) this may seem odd. After all, what can be so possibly complicated about asking a question? The answer is, of course, nothing. There is nothing complicated about asking “A question”, but this was not what Krebs was talking about. He was talking about asking “THE question”.
This distinction is a very important one. A researcher capable of asking “THE question” type of questions is to a researcher only capable of asking “A question” type of questions what an architect is to a bricklayer. The truth is that most scientists are incapable of asking “THE question” type of questions and many are not even aware that this is a limitation. Indeed, a good number of researchers would even dispute that this is an issue. These researchers have trained with other scientist who only asked “A question” type of questions, and that is all they know. From their vantage point this is how science works. You ask a series of little specific questions and subject them to test and make incremental advances that build upon each other.
Now, I don’t want to imply that asking “A question” type of questions is not useful. Large numbers of researchers asking these type of questions produce valuable information that moves scientific fields forward, and when these researchers team up with applied scientists this results in practical applications. These scientists create the stepping stones on which science advances most of the time.
However, it is the scientists who have the ability to ask “THE question” type of questions the ones who are responsible for the milestones. These scientists have the depth, vision, and inspiration to, going back to Krebs’s analogy, know “where to dig”. And as Krebs pointed out, this ability is something that can’t be taught. The scientists who ask these questions that get to the fundamental nature of things are very much like the artists who have the ability to create a masterpiece that will endure through the ages and captivate the imagination.
I consider that, in terms of asking questions, level 1 separates the professional scientists from the amateurs, level 2 separates the good scientists from the average ones, and level 3 separates the truly exceptional scientists from the merely good ones. Of course, there is more to successful science than asking questions. There is luck, there is being at the right place at the right time, there is the capacity to promote yourself and your research, to network, to establish collaborations, to request funds, and many other activities that are not mastered by locking yourself up in a lab or an office and thinking up questions. However, those scientists who can function at level 3 are in the highest echelon of sophistication in the art of articulating scientific questions, and this is pretty darn close to the stuff Nobel Prizes are made of!
Escher-inspired figure by Robbert van der Steeg used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
In 1999 the secret “Wedge Document” was leaked to the world. This document outlined the master plan of the proponents of Intelligent Design to infiltrate the scientific establishment and make Intelligent Design a valid scientific notion worthy of being taught in school alongside the theory of evolution.
The governing goals of the plan were: “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies”, and “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”.
However, the highflying expectations of the Intelligent Design movement were stopped cold by a 2005 ruling by a Pennsylvania judge that exposed Intelligent Design as nothing more than religion masquerading as science. This was the last of a string of legal defeats that creationist suffered in the United States.
One of the things that caught my attention about the Wedge Document is that creationists apparently object to materialistic explanations of how life on Earth arose and evolved. This greatly puzzles me because it is widely understood that science is incapable of any other type of explanations! And this is not due to science being co-opted by materialists who want to destroy God and religion.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you throw a bicycle in a pond that contains several fish. After a while the fish will probably swim around the bicycle, but they will definitely never ride it. Can you conclude that the fish rejected the bicycle? Of course not, because it is not in the nature of fish to ride bicycles. Following this analogy, we must understand that the whole concept of a God, or any proposal that involves theistic (related to a God) intervention, is not in the nature of science to analyze or comprehend. Science cannot elaborate hypotheses that involve divine intervention to explain what happens in the world, because they are not testable. Only materialistic explanations are testable, and here is where the problem arises.
Creationist believe that the Earth is 10,000 years old, that life on Earth appeared in one creation event involving 7 days, that there was a universal flood, and that the first man was created from clay directly by God. Of course science has found that the Earth is billions of years old, that the diversity of life on Earth did not appear in a span of 7 days, that there was no universal flood, and that humans evolved from other life forms. Creationists view these notions as an attack on their beliefs, and they are scandalized when this knowledge is taught in schools. Are scientists doing this to reject the literal creation story of the book of Genesis in the Bible, discredit theism, and impose materialism?
The answer is no. Scientists ask questions and provide answers based on the evidence. Of course, a particular answer may conflict with your beliefs, but what are scientists to do if that is where the evidence leads them? There is no ill will, no master plan to discredit theism and impose materialism, just the search for truth. There are some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, who disavow religion and advocate exclusively for materialistic explanations regarding the origin of life and humanity, and that is their prerogative as freethinking individuals in an open society. But a large number of scientists from many cultures are believers, and they see no conflict between science and religion. However, what these scientists understand is that religious books such as the Bible should not be used as textbooks of natural history. These scientists subscribe to the maxim attributed to Galileo that the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Science is the best method we have to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. In this sense, when it comes to the natural world, science can help us in deciding what to believe or how to believe it. But science has limitations. It cannot tell us what is right or wrong, it cannot give us the guidance we seek as to the best way to live our lives from a moral and ethical point of view, it cannot provide us with values. This is the realm of religion, faith, and belief. These different areas of expertise that the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria are necessary for the education of balanced human beings, and they should be kept separate. Science should be taught as science and religion should be taught as religion.
Creationist should, to quote a person whose teachings they know very well, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's”.
The tittle page image of the Wedge Document is in the public domain.
I have read some critical comments about Bill Nye the Science Guy. The comments essentially stated that Bill Nye is not a real scientist because he doesn’t have a Ph.D., just a B.S. in mechanical engineering. This is a common belief I find among people who have not pursued a scientific career. These people think that to be scientists, and think like scientists, you need decades of study and work in labs or in the field operating expensive pieces of equipment and researching some important things.
These beliefs are wrong. Not only is Bill Nye a true scientist, but also you can be one too even if you have not pursued a scientific career.
The only thing you need to do to be a scientist is to follow the scientific method when answering questions. And what questions am I talking about? They don’t have to be complicated questions regarding the inner workings of genes, the cure for a disease, how stars explode, or how to classify fossils. The questions can be very simple, but they have to be scientific. In fact that is the first step of the scientific method:
Step 1: Ask a scientific question.
Scientific questions are those that pertain to the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Questions that cannot generate testable answers are not scientific questions.
Examples of scientific and non-scientific questions:
“Does God exist?” is not a scientific question because there is no way to test it, but “How many people believe God exists?” or “How has the belief in God affected society?” are scientific questions, because people can be polled and the effects of believing in a God can be evaluated.
“Is killing wrong?” is not a scientific question because it involves a value judgement that also often depends on the situation, but “How many people think killing is wrong and in which situations?” is a scientific question.
“Is this lake big?” is not a scientific question because terms such as “lake” or “big” mean different things to different people, but “What is the area (or volume) occupied by this body of water and how does it compare to others?” is a scientific question.
Other examples of scientific questions are: “Can plants grow under green light?”, “Do ice cubes melt slower in salt water?”, “Does the size of a gummy bear affect how fast it will melt in a microwave oven?”, etc.
Once you have asked a scientific question, you have to propose a possible answer to said question (a hypothesis). But before you proceed to the next step, you should try to check whether your question has been answered by someone else somewhere. Examine their methodology and their conclusions to see if you agree with them.
Step 2: Propose an answer (a hypothesis) to your question.
The key thing to remember here is that the hypothesis that you propose has to be falsifiable. This means that if your hypothesis is false, you have to be able to demonstrate that that indeed is the case. An example of a non-falsifiable hypothesis is:
Wood floats and steel sinks because wood has more “floatability” than steel. Here “flotability” is just a restatement of the very effect we are trying to explain.
A falsifiable hypothesis would be:
Steel sinks because it is denser than water and wood floats because it is less dense. Here density (weight divided by volume) is a quantity that can be measured and modified to evaluate the hypothesis.
Step 3: Devise a way to test these scientific hypotheses through observation or experiments.
The best experiments or observations are those that provide a yes or no answer. If there are several variables that can affect the results of your experiment, you have to control them before any meaningful results can be obtained. This is why scientists often use “controls” in their experiments. For example, if you are trying to figure out at what temperature a liquid will boil, you also have to be mindful of the pressure at which you are heating it and the content of other substances dissolved in the liquid. Water will boil at different temperatures on a mountain compared to sea level. Salt water will boil at a different temperature than fresh water.
Also be mindful of your biases! If you feel very strongly about the hypothesis that you are testing, you should probably ask someone else to perform the experiment or the observations for you to avoid experimenter or observer bias.
Step 4: Evaluate the results of your experiment or the observations you made and reach a conclusion.
Try to be razor sharp in your conclusion. The hypothesis is either true or false. Do not fall in love with a hypothesis. Unless there was a mistake in the measurements or observations, or new knowledge became available that would have affected your procedures, if a hypothesis proven false, it is false. Do not move the goalposts! This is what pseudoscientists do when their pet explanations are proven false over and over.
Most people who write about the scientific method stop at step 4, but in my opinion, one more step is required. This step is the most crucial and most difficult, and also the reason I consider Bill Nye to be more of a scientist than many scientists even if he doesn’t have a Ph.D.
Step 5: Being a scientist is not merely applying the scientific method a few times or applying it selectively to some things and not to others. Being a scientist means incorporating this method into your daily life, into the way you think, into the way you select which beliefs to hold, and in fact into your very world view.
You will be surprised to learn that quite a number of scientists (all with a Ph.D.) that apply the scientific method on a regular basis to their research at work are incapable of applying it to aspects of their personal lives or even their beliefs. I have met scientists who believe in creationism, astrology, bogus alternative therapies, and many other things that have been tested and disproven. And the irony is that many of the scientific principles that have been used to demonstrate that these things are false are the same principles that these scientists apply in their labs in their experiments! Such is the complexity of the human mind.
This is why I believe Mr. Nye is a real scientist, and why you can be one too. Now get out there and be a scientist!
Photo of Bill Nye photo by Paul Antico, SFU - University Communications, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.