Taking a cue from John Spencer, I want to remove a phrase from our vocabulary. Science teachers at all levels ought to stop using the term “scientific method”. This term sends a powerful implicit message about how science works and removes the need for creativity in science. To believe that all scientists follow a single step-by-step scientific method limits science in unnecessary and unrealistic ways.
Historically, scientists have used extremely varied strategies to investigate the natural world. Some scientists study distant stars, how can we do a controlled experiment on a star? We can’t. “Controlled experiments” are often thought of as necessary. Yet, we know a lot about stars on which we cannot experiment. Thinking we must do experiments to generate reliable knowledge leads to all sorts of misconceptions. Most prominently is the dismissal of scientific ideas like evolution or global warming because there is no “controlled experiment”. Most science is not experimental science, it is based on detailed observation.
To help illustrate my point and maybe push it a bit further, let us consider a few scientists. Antoine Lavoisier fits the typical view of how scientists work. He made careful measurements of gases and tested hypotheses related to masses of gas before and after burning. He and his wife carried out these experiments using carefully constructed glassware and repeated their measurements several times.
While Lavoisier fits the typical view of scientist, let us consider another well-known scientist, Albert Einstein. Einstein claimed his chief strategy to be imagination. He imagined himself riding on a beam of light and thought about whether he would be able to see himself in a mirror. From these “thought-experiments” and through mathematical manipulation he created his theory of relativity. Einstein made no observations (his ideas were later confirmed through observation), he simply set loose his imagination.
Now, imagine the poster of the “scientific method” you have hanging in your classroom. Where on that poster or in that textbook diagram is the step “use your imagination”? My suggestion, take the poster down and encourage your students to understand the multitude of strategies scientists use to learn about nature.