The scientist’s day-to-day work is about building models not testing hypothesis

I recently came by this topic by reading the post from the Computing Education Blog by Mark Guzdial. It struck me that this actually is true, regardless of what the formality of the scientific method states. I work in this way. Whether you’re writing a research proposal, or a PhD project, you’re suposed to write within the formality of the scientific method, i.e. you have to start your research with a given hypothesis and prove or disprove it, the you draw conclusions. However, the researcher Nancy Nersessian from Georgia Tech found out by investigating how bioengineering scientists think and work, that this hypothesis testing approach is nothing more that a “received view”, what scientists actually do is described in the following

In the real world of scientific investigation, she said, scientists usually rely on a model-based process rather than a hypothesis-driven one. They formulate models based on what they know from previous research and then derive testable hypotheses from those models. Data from experiments don’t validate or invalidate hypotheses as much as they feed back into the models to generate better research questions.

The research is primarily oriented at finding out how scientists really think and work, so as to translate these values to students so they can become successful scientists. This doesn’t seem like a an easy thing to measure, but it could prove useful to redesign curricula that seeks to teach the scientific method in a very orthodox and traditional way, whereas the day-to-day work of scientists is far from this ideal or hypothetical view. The article continues in this line of thought

Based on her findings, Nersessian and her colleagues have developed a series of classes for science and engineering students at Georgia Tech that attempts to instill the skills necessary for a model-based approach to investigation. For example, students tackle the thankfully hypothetical scenario of a zombie invasion on campus and how officials could control and contain it. The first thing they must do, Nersessian said, is develop a model that includes relevant information on disease-spreading patterns, quarantine methods, and campus escape routes. Eventually, the students’ models begin to resemble real quarantine plans based on real-world diseases. By the end of the classes, Nersessian said, students should be “spontaneous, model-based reasoners.”

via Why Science Needs Applied Philosophy – Science Careers Blog.


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