Scientists Need to Get Out More
Strict application of the “scientific method” is blinding some scientists to the real world, two authors claim.
We need a new science to get “back to the future,” a press release from the University of Arizona claims – actually, “back to the past” might be more accurate. Two U of A researchers have a new book out saying scientists need to get out more, like they used to.
Mars rover Curiosity is doing it. School children strolling through the woods with binoculars are doing it. Charles Darwin was doing it. Observing the natural world around them was how the early naturalists started what would later become known as ecology – the science of how living things interact, depend on each other and how their habitats and communities change over time.
In their book, “Observation and Ecology,” ecologists Rafe Sagarin and Aníbal Pauchard make the case that if scientists are to tackle the enormously complex problems the world is facing, researchers and funding agencies have to leave their comfort zone of well-controlled experimental manipulations.
Sagarin and Pauchard argue that a strict indoor application of the so-called “scientific method” (a philosophically vexed notion), i.e., testing hypotheses in the lab, cannot provide insight into complex problems that have too many variables. Direct observation, though, like getting outside and walking around with one’s eyes open, can. They apply this to global warming. No amount of modeling can surpass the simple act of getting out and observing what animals and plants are being affected by climate change.
Even historical records and tribal legends can be useful to scientists. Those can’t be tested in a laboratory; they need observers willing to get out and find them. Some field experiments, further, might be unethical, like moving animals to a different habitat to see if they suffer. Better to observe them in their real habitats.
People used to do more observing outdoors, they point out. “In the 1930s, more people in the U.S. went to birding parties than to professional baseball games,” Sagarin said. While technology tends to drive scientists (and teenagers) more indoors, it doesn’t have to; for instance, groups of young people can take their smart phones and collect data over wide areas with data-sharing apps. These might lead to fundamental insights by citizen scientists.
The authors are trying to supplement lab science, not supplant it; they also argue that they are not trying to take science back to “stamp collecting” (merely cataloging observations and classifying things). But large numbers of observations, they argue, can inform the kinds of experiments worthy of testing.
We post this not so much to agree with all they say, but as an illustration that the so-called “scientific method” is not set in stone. This story also points out that “sociology of science” affects the kinds of questions scientists ask and what they consider significant. Further, it illustrates that science “evolves” over time; even Darwin, they point out, spent a lot more time looking at nature than many evolutionists today who concoct models out of data sets and computerized organisms. (Too bad Darwin didn’t have an electronic microscope or history might have been different – perhaps a much earlier Intelligent Design Movement.)
Most will probably agree that it is worthwhile to get out into nature and be more observant. There’s no substitute for real world learning.