full moon surrounded by clouds

Do you remember being introduced to the scientific method in school?

For me, it was a confounding experience.

Science, in my head, was this amazing, powerful schema that could build skyscrapers, eradicate diseases, and create video games from mere code. Surely the scientific method, the foundation of science, is as rock solid as the moon it actually got us to?

A Refresher on the Scientific Method

For those who need a refresher (hand raised!), here is the scientific method in all its glory:

  1. Make an observation.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
  4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  5. Test the prediction.
  6. Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

(I got this from this Khan Academy article on the scientific method.)

The Scientific Method Is Anything But Rock Solid

I remember thinking, as a young adult, Wait a second. To do science, I have to wonder something, make a guess, test it out, and keep trying more or less random stuff, based on my own lame guesses, until something just happens to work?!

THAT’S how a man ended up on the moon???!!!!

Yes, folks. The mighty pillar of culture and society that we call science is based on ordinary people having all manner of bizarre ideas and experimenting around those ideas.

(All you scientists and science lovers out there know this already!)

Honestly—and strangely—Shakespeare felt more rock solid to me than the scientific method. And still does.

As a young woman, I had a total of zero ideas and questions about fruit flies or hydrochloric acid. And I had serious doubts that, were I to somehow have an idea or question about fruit flies or hydrochloric acid, make a hypothesis, and test it out—that I would actually get to where I wanted to go.

Because where I wanted to go, as I finally figured out, was something like where Hamlet wanted to go . . . which was . . . ????

Yep: in college, I switched to an English major, feeling that the scientific method was not going to do it for me. But what would do it for me????

When the Scientific Method Fails

An example from a masterful novel may help here. Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, is a fun fantasy novel . . . that also tackles big philosophical questions. The protagonist is (he says) a scientist. At one point, he observes something about the world in which he lives, and he has an important question. (I won’t reveal what it is, to avoid spoilers.) But the scientific method fails him:

“I have often wondered about that. As a hypothesis it is impossible to prove one way or the other – unless one day I come across signs . . .”

The scientific method works extremely well, when hypotheses are testable. But what happens when they are not? In that case, we are left in the dark. We are left to try to devise a testable hypothesis, if possible; or we are left to hope for the appearance of evidence; or we are left to rely on nonscientific methods such as revelation.

Some questions are not answerable. Or maybe they are answerable, but not in our lifetimes.

Many aspects of our universe are difficult, if not impossible, to test for: the existence and nature of life on another planet; the existence and nature of alternate universes; the existence and nature of a higher power. Scientists have tried to tackle these questions, but experiments in these areas are not easy to come by, and results are, so far, inconclusive.

Come to think of it, I actually had many questions about fruit flies and hydrochloric acid. But they were not, I knew, the right type of questions. They were not testable questions. My questions were things like “Why do fruit flies, and all the atoms inside them, exist?” and “I get that that electrons are zipping around within hydrochloric acid, but why?”

One time, when I was a high school teacher, a fellow teacher asked me, “Which is the greater question, HOW or WHY?” The answer, he informed me, was WHY. HOW meant, to him, science and engineering; WHY meant the arts and philosophy. HOW meant practicality; WHY meant the great unknown. HOW is getting enough food to eat; WHY is wondering what food gathering is, existentially speaking. But just because a question is greater does not mean it is better . . . especially when you’re mainly trying to live your life and survive on a physical level. . . .

The man in the novel who calls himself a scientist tackles many questions that can be tested, and he makes many discoveries. But some discoveries are beyond his reach, precisely because his questions around them are untestable. So he waits for evidence . . . and he tests what can be tested . . . and he dabbles in unscientific methods of gaining information, such as revelation . . . and the novel gets interesting. . . .

(This is getting deep for a simple fantasy novel. I adore this book. Every chapter brings forth more ideas and questions. It’s brilliant. And exciting. And lots of fun!)

When the Scientific Method Succeeds

But of course we need both the HOW and the WHY in our world. They go hand in hand. Asking the WHY questions can get us thinking in new ways; asking the HOW questions can move us incrementally toward more discovery and invention. Both are great, and each of us can decide for ourselves whether we are a WHY person, a HOW person, or BOTH!

The scientific method is one of the most amazing and powerful schemas on earth. The development of the scientific method is one of the greatest achievements of human history, and has led to so many discoveries and inventions, many of which we take for granted. Meanwhile, inquiring into untestable areas is valuable in its own way, pushing the boundaries of human thought and understanding, and grappling with human flaws and powers through the arts.

What types of questions do you have? Are they testable?

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