“Don’t f*ck with the scientific method!” she growled from the back seat as we drove. We were on one of many jaunts to various friends and locations in Maui, I don’t quite remember which, but I had made a joke about using the scientific method – but using it wrong. The change in her tone was dramatic, this woman who was a trained technician, a welder, a person who immersed herself in the wonders of science on a visceral and immediate level every day.
My lighthearted joke was, I believe, actually a little threatening. Because, you see, she wanted to still like me, but if I could actually mess with the method…well, them’s fightin’ words, as they say.
It’s actually kind of easy to understand why. The scientific method is a time-honored practice that gets results. Simply put, while it can be tedious, annoying, frustrating, and tiresome to people who enjoy sweeping bursts of creativity and unfettered wanton composition, it works. There are occasionally science teachers who can convey to people exactly how wondrous that concept is – a magic formula, a spell, if you will, that when cast on the world around you can explain parts of it, and allow you to control it. As Clarke put it, use it in a sufficiently advanced way, it is indistinguishable from magic.
But mess with it – do it wrong (or heaven forbid, do it wrong on purpose) – and it can be worse than useless, it can be damaging.
For those who have had a bit of time since they last thought of the Method, here it is, simply put:
- Ask a Question
- Do Background Research
- Construct a Hypothesis
- Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
- Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
- Communicate Your Results
…and then the results end up, usually, with the next question, and you go on through it.
What if you skip a step?
- “Is the earth round?”
- (no background research)
- “I think it’s flat.“
- “I’ll test it by rolling this ball!“
- “The ball rolled flat until stopped by friction!”
- “HEY, EVERYONE! THE EARTH IS FLAT!
I know, seems like a silly observation. Except that a good portion of humanity pretty much believed that for a long, long time. Some still do. They could “prove” it using the scientific method, but using it poorly. With no background research, and inadequate experiments, amazingly wrong conclusions can be drawn.
How Scientific is Your Practice?
When you pick some new habit or skill to develop, do you do anything like the scientific method? Or do you skip steps?
- QUESTION:What happens if I get up earlier?
- RESEARCH: This article says I’ll be more productive! This one says it will help my moods!
- HYPOTHESIS: I bet that would work! I can be cheerful and productive if I get up earlier!
- EXPERIMENT! I’ll set my alarm for 5am!
- ANALYSIS: OMG I AM SO TIRED I WANT COFFEE & DEATH NOT NECESSARILY IN THAT ORDER.
- CONCLUSION: Getting up early sucks.
What was missing? Lotsa stuff, actually. Not enough research. A poorly designed test. An evaluation of variables under subjective duress which can skew the results.
I’m sure there’s lots of other things missing too, but the point is: we often try, and give up on (or adopt) practices without putting much thought into their actual effects or the causes of their failure. Journaling is something of a method, to be sure, as are other self-awareness exercises…but what if you treated your life like an experiment?
What conclusions could you draw?