The Myth of the Scientific Method

Written by the BPS Science Department: Pam Pelletier, Director of Science & Technology/Engineering, and Holly Rosa, Assistant Director of Science & Technology/Engineering

School is in full swing and teachers and students are developing their rhythm of teaching and learning together. During the past week or so, Holly and I have had the chance to peek into science classes and talk with teachers and school leaders. I am not sure why, but this year more than ever, we see the posters and hear the presentations about THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD. Students are learning and memorizing a series of 5 or 6 specific steps that scientists follow when they “do science.”

Please consider these two selections…

“Over the past few decades, historians, philosophers of science, and sociologists have taken a much closer look at what scientists actually do–with often surprising results. In the conventional view, the lone scientist, usually male and usually white, struggles heroically with nature in order to understand the natural world. Sometimes scientists are seen as applying a “scientific method” to get their results. They are perceived as removed from the real world, operating in an airy realm of abstraction.

Studies of what scientists actually do belie these stereotypes. They approach problems in many different ways and with many different preconceptions. There is no single ‘scientific method’ employed by all. Scientists use a wide array of methods to develop hypotheses, models, and formal and informal theories. They also use different methods to assess the fruitfulness of their theories and to refine their models, explanations, and theories. They use a range of techniques to collect data systematically and a variety of tools to enhance their observations, measurements, and data analyses and representations.”
Ready, Set, Science, pp. 3-4

“In the past, students have largely been taught there’s one way to do science,” [Schweingruber] says. “It’s been reduced to ‘Here are the five steps, and this is how every scientist does it… But that one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t reflect how scientists in different fields actually “do”science, she says.”
Problems with “the Scientific Method” AAAS Science News for Students

It is not to say that there aren’t methods or approaches that scientists use, but this lock-step version is the antithesis of the pinball nature of what actually happens when each of us engages in scientific ways of making meaning of phenomena. If you are teaching “the scientific method,” please watch this video from the California Academy of Sciences and explore this website that is highlighted from UC-Berkeley. Our students need us to better understand the nature and practices of science and these resources are wonderfully helpful. Even if you have eliminated the Scientific Method Myth from your classroom, these materials are interesting and informative, many of which can be used with students and in meetings with colleagues.

This text originally appeared in the BPS Science Newsletter on 9/19/15