What Writing Represents What Scientists Actually Do?
Robertson, Bill, Science and Children
Byline: Bill Robertson
What writing represents what scientists actually do?
Often the writing that students in elementary school do in connection with science is their final report of a science fair project. They diligently file a report in the form of the scientific method-introduction, hypothesis, materials, procedure, results, and conclusion. This form of science writing persists through college courses in science, and it isn't unusual for someone majoring in a science discipline to have lab reports as his or her main writing product in science. Of course, one must do a paper or two based on researching and understanding a particular topic in science, but that's usually the extent of writing that ventures beyond reporting labs.
This situation brings up a couple of questions. The first is whether or not a report based on the scientific method accurately represents what scientists do. The second is what kind of writing scientists engage in that goes beyond the reporting of conclusions. I'll try to address those questions in this column. And no, I won't be providing a list of ideas for science fair projects! I know that's a major concern, but it's a topic for another column. For now, just tell 'em to do a baking soda and vinegar volcano (joking!).
First Do, then Write
Does the reporting of science using the scientific method really represent how scientists do science? The short answer is no. Scientists seldom follow the scientific method, even though the reporting of experiments in scientific journals more-or-less follows that template. The question that follows is, "Okay, smart guy, what procedure do scientists follow?" To understand that process, it might help to consider what most kids do when they get a new video game. Do they read the instructions? Nah. They familiarize themselves with the controls and just start playing. They mess around with the game for a while and see what happens. Only then do they go back to the instructions to learn a few things. The instructions make a whole lot more sense once you are somewhat familiar with the game.
Scientists do something similar to what kids do when first playing a video game. They "mess around" a bit with the subject matter. Of course, messing around in science isn't exactly the same as messing around with a video game. Messing around in science means you become familiar with the research already done in your area, and it means trying out a few experiments (or thoughts in the case of theoretical science) just to see what happens. You might even try to reproduce what others have done to hone your skills. The main point is that, until you become familiar with what you're studying, you can't begin to formulate a hypothesis. Formulating a hypothesis is a first step in the scientific method, but it is not the first step in doing science.
Just a quick note about how scientists proceed from the point of formulating a hypothesis. A scientist might start with a particular question to investigate and soon realize that the original question was the wrong one or that the original question has led to a more intriguing question. A scientist who is truly interested in his or her field of study soon has more questions than he or she can answer in a lifetime. This is one of the reasons that scientists take on research assistants to help accomplish goals. Another reason is that graduate assistants are a cheap source of labor!
It would be pretty boring if all of science writing involved nothing more than people publishing the results of their experiments. Thankfully for us, that's not all they do. The "scientific community" wouldn't put up with that, anyway. When you make a claim of an experimental result or alteration of a scientific theory, you can expect that others in your discipline will scrutinize your work, looking for errors in procedure or errors in the logic that led you to your particular conclusions. …