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ScienceWise - Autumn 2011

The scientific method

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Dr Tim Wetherell

The Editor's corner

I’ve watched quite a few interviews lately in which fairly eminent, or at least prominent, scientists speak on a variety of topics ranging from the origin of the universe to the workings of the human mind. One of the disturbing trends I’ve noticed is a slow erosion of the scientific method, the most common and perhaps serious mistake being predicting what science “will” discover.

It usually goes something like this. “We’ve discovered x and soon we’ll discover y.” The problem there is that you’re essentially beginning with your conclusion and confidently predicting that the data will ultimately support it and that’s the antitheses of science.

For example if you understand how the brain processes sounds - that’s great. Perhaps you’ll also understand how it does more complex things one day. But unless you actually know how the more complex function works how can you be sure what you will or won’t discover? Perhaps it will be different to the way you expect and that’s what should make science exciting.

I admit to an element of bias here, but in my experience physicists are the least guilty of presumption. I guess a couple of centuries of discoveries that radically changed our view of the universe have beaten most of that out of us. You learn to keep your mouth shut until you’ve done the experiment because nature can be a tricky little beast and throw something at you that you’d never have even imagined.

We’re running an article in this edition about quantum mechanics. This is one of my personal favourite areas of science. Not because of the physics per se, but because of the weirdness. It often seems that the stranger the  theory, the more likely the data are to support it and that amuses me in a strange kind of way.

In a sense, quantum mechanics keeps science open minded. It throws up crazy sounding ideas that often turn out to be spot on. And most of all, it teaches us not to be drawn into that arrogant mind set of thinking we’re so clever that we’ll soon understand everything. I’ve a feeling nature has quite a few surprises up her sleeve yet!

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