SOLVING PROBLEMS IN BIOLOGY: THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD

"The difference between a Miracle and a Fact
is exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal."

What is Science? It is a method used by humans to try to make sense of the world (and universe) in which they live. Biology is the scientific study of living organisms (from the Greek bios, meaning "life" and logos, meaning "discourse in" or "study of"). Within biology, there are several subdisciplines that are more narrow in focus. Here are just a few of the subdisciplines of biology...

Scientists all start their work by making observations and noticing interesting things. That's what you did when you went out and took pictures.

Which brings us to two ways of thinking.

Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning

Scientists use both inductive and deductive reasoning to address observations.

Inductive Reasoning is sometimes called the "from the bottom up" approach. When we use inductive reasoning, our specific observations and measurements may begin to show us a general pattern. This might allow us to formulate a tentative hypothesis that can be further explored, and we might finally end up making some general conclusions.

In this case, one might construct an argument like so:

  • Items X, Y, and Z all have shown to have characteristic W.
  • Therefore, all items in the same class as X, Y and Z probably also have W.

    For example:

  • This bee stung me. It is a hymenopteran.
  • This wasp stung me. It is a hymenopteran.
  • This fire ant stung me. It is a hymenopteran.
  • I'm starting to see a pattern here. All hymenopterans have stingers.

    One potential pitfall here is the "inductive leap": When you make the jump from many specific observations to a general observation, your generalization might not be correct every time.

  • For example, there are many hymenopterans (stingless bees and ants, male honeybees, etc.) that do not have stingers.

    Although generalizations are certainly useful, the wise scientist is always aware that there may be exceptions to a general rule, and even to the possibility that the "general rule" might eventually be found to be wrong more often than not.

    And that's where Deductive Reasoning comes in. Deductive Reasoning is sometimes called the "from the top down" approach. In this case, we start with a general idea and work down to the more specific.

    Deductive reasoning is used to test existing theories and hypotheses (general ideas) by collecting experimental observations (specific examples) that put those ideas to the test. One of the most useful ways to use this method is to construct a syllogism, a specific type of argument that has three simple steps:

  • Every X has the characteristic Y.
  • This thing in my hand is X.
  • Therefore, this thing has the characteristic Y.

    For example:

  • All wasps have stingers. (General idea that you inductively reached before.)
  • This thing in my hand is a wasp.
  • Therefore, this thing can probably sting me! (specific conclusion)

    How do you find out? Well, this experiment might be kind of painful. But you get the idea.

    The results of your study may suggest further experiments. (What types of hymenopterans don't have stingers? Why has this evolved?)


    Hypothesis, Theory, Law. What's the Difference?

    Science is based on our attempts to explain the cause of indisputable observations (affectionately known as FACTS).

    In this, science is very different from FAITH, which accepts the existence of things that cannot be observed or considered to be indisputable facts.

    The Hypothesis

    The Theory

    The Law

    Science versus Religion

    Science is about facts (physical observation). When we see something we can't explain, we ask critical questions about it, and subject it to careful, rigorous experimentation to answer that question. If a question cannot be subject to the scientific method, then it's not science. It's something else.

    Religion is based upon faith in things that cannot be seen or tested. Most religions have specific dogma. Dogma is established belief or doctrine held by a religion (or other organization) that is believed by followers and not to be disputed, doubted, challenged or revised.

    Good science is not based on dogma. Even well-established and sometimes dearly held scientific ideas must be set aside if new experimental evidence suggests that they were wrong, or need to be revised.


    Science as Falsification

    The Scientific Method is a set of rules followed by researchers/investigators in the natural sciences.

    Eminent German philosopher Karl Popper introduced in his famous essay, Science as Falsification, the method modern scientists use.

    A hypothesis must be subject to falsification to be truly powerful.

    A hypothesis repeatedly supported, but never challenged, is WEAK.

  • Scientific experiments are designed to rule out hypotheses that are clearly wrong.
  • This is done by what amounts to a "process of elmination" This process of exclusion is known as falsification.

    A very simple example:

    Until you do that one trial that nets a fish, the "no fish" hypothesis must be provisionally accepted: your observable evidence does not suggest otherwise.

    But the scientist always must be open to the possibility that an unrefuted hypothesis may, at some point, be proven wrong.

    In the example above, it's easy to see that dipping a net into the ocean isn't a very high-tech way to address this problem. But with more advanced technology such as

    You might well be able to refute the "no fish" hypothesis. Science marches on as technology improves.

    The Scientific Method

    One can liken a hypothesis to a castle or fortress...

    It may look well built from the outside, and seem to be perfectly sound.
    You may be able to add more blocks with mortar (evidence that supports your hypothesis),
    but until you test your "castle" by actually attacking it...

    ...you don't really know how much of it will stand up to attack.

    If the hypothesis isn't correct, it may end up looking something like this:

    But in science, that's okay. It just means "back to the drawing board."

    Science isn't always about being right.

    Science is about seeking the truth.


    The Scientific Method usually consists of the following steps...


    Presenting Your Research

    Scientific research isn't much use if we don't share it. Scientists gather at scientific meetings/symposia (singular = symposium) to share their research and ideas, and may present them as either Ultimately, the scientist hopes to publish the results in a scientific journal, and the article must be written in a specific format comprising a scientific paper. This may vary somewhat from journal to journal, but in general, the paper is constructed of these major components:


    Now let's see how well we can apply the scientific method to The Mystery of the Glass Frogs.