Maybe it’s time to stop teaching “the scientific method” in 1st year biology

Recently, my department held a search for a new instructor to oversee our 1st year labs. An important part of our search process is a “teaching talk”, in which we pretend (poorly) to be students, and the candidates give a lecture they might deliver in one of their assigned courses. We set the topic (so it’s the same for all candidates), and this time, we asked them to deliver a lecture for 1st-year biology on “the scientific method”.

We were lucky to interview three wonderful candidates (I’d have been happy with any of them), and I think they did the best job possible with that lecture topic. But the experience crystallized something that’s been bothering me for many years. I’m becoming convinced that even the best job possible of teaching “the scientific method” to first year biology students simply isn’t worth doing. Or, to be a bit more forceful: it probably does more harm than good. I know, that’s nothing short of heresy. Every first-year biology textbook starts, right there in Chapter 1, with the scientific method; and every first-year biology course teaches it.

What could possibly be more important to our students than understanding the key philosophical underpinnings of our scientific enterprise? That rhetorical question sounds really compelling (because I designed it that way), but I’ll argue two things. First, we aren’t really doing that; and second, there actually are quite a few things more important. (I expect folks to disagree vociferously, of course; that’s what the Replies are for.)

First, what do we teach when we teach the scientific method? Well, it’s almost always based on some variant of the diagram above this post: the idea-hypothesis-prediction-data-test-idea loop. Or, if you’d rather have it written out, this was my very top Google search result for “scientific method”:

The six steps of the scientific method include: 1) asking a question about something you observe, 2) doing background research to learn what is already known about the topic, 3) constructing a hypothesis, 4) experimenting to test the hypothesis, 5) analyzing the data from the experiment and drawing conclusions, and 6) communicating the results to others. [from sciencebuddies.org, a K-12 science teaching resource site; emphasis mine]

In my (sadly extensive) experience, this nearly always goes wrong in two ways. First, it leads to painful and uninteresting philosophical bun-fights about the distinction between a hypothesis and a prediction – and these distract from the far more important idea of confronting your idea about how the world works with data. Second, and more important, notice the bold-faced part in the text quote, or the southwest segment of the graphic? That’s right: the only scientific way to test a prediction is an experiment. Believing this is a colossal blunder, of course (for one thing, it excludes astronomy, plate tectonics, and quite a few other things from being part of “science”).

You can (and should) teach scientific methods (notice the switch to the plural?) without making this blunder. But it seems uncommon for folks to do so. Individual instructors aren’t (entirely) to blame: textbooks and other available resources are heavily slanted to featuring only experiments. (Of the first 20 Google Image results for “scientific method”, only one even acknowledges the possibility of something other than experiments, with a rather vague “inquiry or experiment”.) The result: students who don’t realize that theoretical and observational approaches to inference exist, or – critically – that they need different approaches in design, analysis, and in careful thought. I could even conjecture that another result is the existence of practicing scientists who will tell you, with a straight face, that “you can’t infer process from pattern”. (Come on over here, folks – astronomy would like a word with you.)

Of course, we could correct this. We could teach about the rich variety of inferential tools that we’ve harnessed to learn what we’ve learned so far about our universe. We could teach about theory, and simulation modeling, and observation, and controlled experiments, and natural “experiments”, and so on; we could teach about the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and how best to combine them. But of course that’s much harder than parroting the available resources that don’t go past the controlled experiment. It would, for example, certainly require far more time than we gave our 1st-year Instructor candidates!

Given that nearly every student has already had the misleading experiment-only version of “the” scientific method, several times over, in K-12 science classes, we ought to either teach it right (with the investment of class time that requires, in the face of the howls that arise any time you propose dropping anything from first-year biology), or quit teaching it at all. Since there’s little evidence that we’re willing to teach it right, maybe we should quit teaching it at all.

Now, if we didn’t teach the scientific method, we’d have a little available class time to teach something more important. What might that be? How about instead of the scientific method, we invest a bit of time in teaching the methods of science? How about, for example, things like teamwork, coauthorship, data management, research ethics, citation practices, peer review, or reader-centred scientific writing? All of those seem pretty important to me.

Yeah, I know. We’re probably stuck with “the” scientific method.

© Stephen Heard  March 15, 2022

Image: The Scientific Method © Sarah Greenwood via Wikipedia.org CC BY 4.0

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10 thoughts on “Maybe it’s time to stop teaching “the scientific method” in 1st year biology

  1. Philip Moriarty

    *Great* post, Stephen.

    How about instead of the scientific method, we invest a bit of time in teaching the methods of science? How about, for example, things like teamwork, coauthorship, data management, research ethics, citation practices, peer review, or reader-centred scientific writing? All of those seem pretty important to me.

    Absolutely, totally, completely agree. Let’s leave the monolith of “The Scientific Method” behind not just in biology but across the board. I had a nice cathartic rant about this a while back in the context of physics: https://muircheartblog.wpcomstaging.com/2018/07/08/the-truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but/

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  2. John Pastor

    Agree 1000%. I co-taught our Integrated Biology one-year sequence for first-year grad students in our Integrated Biosciences grad program. I always started by saying “We are going to rewire your neurons in this degree. It will give you migraines”. Their neurons were hardwired from freshman or high school biology courses taught exactly as you said. The major part of rewiring was to get them to stop thinking about THE scientific method and instead broaden their thinking to scientific methodS. You cannot integrate biology without broadening beyond experiments, as powerful as they can be. The students did get migraines but many often told me of their eureka moment when a big chunk of the universe fell into place and they realized what we were doing.

    I bgean my career as a geologist where, as you said, experiments are often not possible (see plate tectonics; also glaciations, etc). I do not recall as heavy an emphasis on THE scientific method in undergrad geology courses as I later saw in biology courses. The emphasis was on spending a lot of time in the field (“The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks”) and pulling together a coherent story about the history of an area that is consistent with the known physics of rocks and fluids and the known biology of evolution. Of course, that physical and biological knowledge was partly obtained from experiments, but the emphasis in geology was and is the *integration* of a variety of lines of evidence. Geology is now becoming more experimental and many of my geologist colleagues, especially the younger ones, think that is a good thing. But I notice that they are spending much less time in the field.

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  3. Brandon

    I agree that a different approach to the topic should be taken. Those diagrams don’t meaningfully explain how science proceeds. We have a second-year course that I teach that gives a much more fulsome examination of how science proceeds. I use a great book by Hugh Gauch called Scientific Method in Brief. I learned a lot from that book. It’s meaty, but good.

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  4. Peter Apps

    Hallelujah ! I have just had the most protracted and frustrating back and forward with a supposedly prestigious journal’s reviewers and editors about whether anything except what they conceived of as “hypotheses” and “experiments” is useful science. Nearly all the wildlife biology journals now insist that papers be fitted to the Procrustean bed of “hypothesis” testing, and every thesis chapter is now built around a “research question” whose general answer is already known, with the research simply fitting it to some “model”, commonly with more parameters than it predicts. It seems that proper scientists no longer find things out.

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  5. mooerslab

    Hi Steve: thanks for this — yours seems like a reasonable position, and there is no reason we cannot start rewiring in 1rst year; as you say, they have heard about the Scientific Method for years already. In our decentralized instructional system, I guess it is up to 1rst year instructors to take the plunge, as Dr. Pastor seems to have done.

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  6. Barry Goldman

    reminds me of watching a 6th grade science class go through this (while i was working as a paraprofessional in the class). this stuff bores me to tears.

    also, something came to mind that is never mentioned: one of the great things about science is COMMUNICATION. This allows people to contribute to science by reading journals, writing their results and needing only to work on a TINY piece of that circle and still make great contributions to science: a fruitful hypothesis, a piece of math, figuring out how to build a new kind of lens, how to culture an organism that becomes a new model, collecting lots of data and seeing a pattern… etc… It’s great if you can see the whole picture, but you don’t necessarily HAVE to.

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  7. Michael Rogers

    I have two thoughts holding me up on this position. 1) With how rampant misinformation and scientism are these days I feel it is more important than ever to teach young scientists how to evaluate the quality of information in order to be strong advocates for the sciences. 2) Many of the methods of science listed above I do not expect to be consistently relevant to the careers of 1st year students. A handful of these tools may be translatable (e.g., data management and teamwork), but most graduates will not pursue careers to conduct their own publishable research.
    Having said this, I acknowledge I don’t have a full picture on the pressures on lecturers to shoehorn this info into 1st year classes. Perhaps the scientific method is best served to be taught in philosophy of science classes to fully appreciate it? Then again I feel strongly that every student graduating with a science degree should understand it.

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  8. kakapo

    A really good post with a really interesting discussion, but I disagree completely. One reason being probably that I’ve been starting each of my writing courses with the Scientific Method. Or rather: I start with the following set of lectures – Reading; the Structure of Scientific Texts (IMRaD); Asking Questions. And it’s in this third session that the Scientific Method is front and center, not so much because I find it the most important thing to teach, but because I see it as the most valuable way to emphasize the importance of Asking Questions. I use a similar diagram for the Scientific Method (from an old version of Campbell’s Biology), but I never exclusively used experiments as means to test hypotheses. Instead, I discuss the many ways to ask questions (like hypotheses and predictions, or simply a scratching of one’s head) and this way open up the rest of their curriculum, which is primarily about the many ways to answer questions, including experiments, observations, modelling, scientific illustrations, discussions with colleagues etc. But having prepared students to ask a question, to me, lays the groundwork to all of science, and so far I have not found a better way to touch on the relevance of that than by introducing the Scientific Method as our streamlined way of making sense of the world.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This sounds good – and sounds very much like how I opened my 2nd year Ecology course. If you are actually able to do this in 1st year Biology – devote the time to do all this – then that’s terrific! In neither of the departments in which I’ve taught would it have been remotely possible to get away with it. There are always cries of horror if one proposes to remove a fact or two to make room for this extended discussion – that was my point!

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