Science is an art. Just like artists, scientists have to be creative and in the process are creating unique works. Representatives of both professions are supposed to push back frontiers, to explore new horizons for the benefit of humankind.
But scientists don’t have the liberty artists enjoy. Whereas artists can follow every extravagant idea that pops up in their head and do things never done before without any limitation – in fact will be applauded for weird exhibitions -, scientists have to fulfil a whole range of requirements for their scientific work. Anything outside of these boundaries will be labeled ‘nonscientific’.
Science assumes that the world works in an orderly fashion based on physical laws. Scientific inquiry is about describing what happens, when it happens, what causes it to happen, and why it happens.
After conceiving the creative idea, in any strange and interesting way possible, the scientist has to follow a strict research process. The idea has to become a detailed question to which the answer has to be found. To find this answer a research design is laid out which has to be approved by an institutional review board. Collecting the required data needs to be a strictly controlled process so as to not contaminate the data gathered due to which the research results won’t be valid.
When these steps have been taken with great care and according to the rules, analysing the data and disseminating the results will not generate any great difficulties anymore. A new finding has been added to human knowledge.
Quality research stems from both sound methodology and good questions. But luck is one of the major players in many of the important discoveries in human history. In science, it is called serendipity: unexpectedly stumbling upon something important. The word is derived from Serendip, once the name for Sri Lanka. It was claimed that the three princes of Serendip were always making discoveries by good luck.
“The power and value of even the simplest observations should not be underestimated”, state professors Michael Gazzaniga and Todd Heatherton in their book Psychological Science: the mind, brain and behaviour. “For example, while studying the behaviour of finches in the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin noted that the birds had a number of different beak types, and moreover, that how a finch foraged for food depended on its type of beak. Birds with short and large beaks mostly fed on large seeds out in the open, while birds with thin and long beaks tended to search for food in the crevices and cracks of the rocky shoreline. Based on these simple observations of finches and their behaviour, Darwin surmised that, over many generations within a species, both the body and the behaviour of the animals adapt or change in order to take maximum advantage of the resources available in the environment. Thus the theory of evolution had its foundations in simple observations.”
“Darwin’s is the most ideologically significant of all grand scientific theories.”
Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi, neuroscientists
A good theory produces a wide variety of testable hypotheses. A good theory also tends toward simplicity. Hence, the advice to use Occam’s razor for developing hypotheses. Occam’s razor is named after Sir William of Occam, an English philosopher who lived in the fourteenth century. His advice: when you have two competing theories to explain the same phenomenon, take the simpler.
To get ideas for an original theory, the researcher has many sources. He can do an intensive case study. He can look at a paradoxical incident situation. Metaphors can stimulate our thinking as can rules of thumb. The effort to account for conflicting results also may generate ideas.
Three criteria are used to assess whether a research idea is a good one. The theory should have a correspondence with reality. In general, it shouldn’t contradict accepted truths, although those truths aren’t always true either.
The theory should be coherent and shouldn’t be more complicated than necessary. And, most important, the theory should be refutable by any conceivable observation. This is necessary as a fertile imagination can discover ‘facts’ or ‘observations’ to validate almost any claims. If the theory is not refutable by any conceivable observation, it is nonscientific.
Many common-sense explanations for behaviour for instance are either inadequate or flat-out wrong. Whether brainstorming leads to creative solutions, whether opposites attract, whether venting anger is a good idea, whether children with low self-esteem are especially aggressive, and whether there are shooting streaks in basketball has not been supported by scientific research.
“With rare exceptions, progress does not occur in science simply as a result of ‘crucial’ experiments”, according to professors Robert Rosenthal and Ralph Rosnow in their book Essentials of Behavioural Research: Methods and Data Analysis. “It occurs because competent observers, aware of the errors in the data, employ different strategies, replicate and cross-validate, do experiments and quasi experiments, perform studies in the laboratory and in naturalistic settings. Research results, over the long run, may point in a particular direction, but in the short run the research will always be mixed and call out for further investigation and analysis. The scientist’s job is never done.”
What makes a good researcher? Essentials for sound scientific practice are enthusiasm, open-mindedness, common sense, role-taking ability, inventiveness, confidence in one’s own judgment, consistency and care about details, ability to communicate, and honesty.
There is a general assumption that ethics are relevant to only the application of science, not the actual pursuit of science. According to this idea, the scientist as an individual and the community of scientists in general occupy a morally neutral position, with no responsibility for the fruits of what they have discovered.
But many important scientific discoveries, and particularly the technological innovations they lead to, create new conditions and open up new possibilities which give rise to new ethical and spiritual challenges. We cannot simply absolve the scientific enterprise and individual scientists from responsibility for contributing to the emergence of a new reality.
“Unless the direction of science is guided by a consciously ethical motivation, especially compassion, its effect may fail to bring benefit. They may indeed cause great harm”, writes Dalai Lama XIV in his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.
Perhaps the most important point is to ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings. Just as one’s fingers can function only in relation to the palm, so scientists must remain aware of their connection to society at large. Science is vitally important, but it is only one finger of the hand of humanity, and its greatest potential can be actualised only so long as we are careful to remember this. Otherwise, we risk losing our sense of priorities. Humanity may end up serving the interests of scientific progress rather than the other way around.
“Today, we are faced with an ever-increasing bombardment of scientific information about ourselves and the world in which we live”, say Gazzaniga and Heatherton. “Understanding how to evaluate such information has become an indispensable skill. What should we believe and what should we ignore? The question is critical because important decisions and choices we make for ourselves and for our society are often made in direct response to the conclusions drawn from science-based research.”
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