Teaching the scientific
method is a staple of standard introductory social science courses such as
sociology, anthropology, psychology, and political science. For instance,
sociology textbooks typically devote a chapter to research procedures
designed to show students how scientific research is achieved. While such
coverage in introductory textbooks is meant to provide the basics, most
students come into social sciences classes already armed with some notion
about how scientific research is conducted. From as early as grade or middle
school, and certainly since high school, students begin accumulating the
scientific wisdom of their science teachers. Once in college, students again
enroll in courses that refresh their memories about the scientific method,
in case they have forgotten what they learned in high school, and hopefully
build on this knowledge. Students internalize the words and phrases they
have associated with science throughout their school years. Underlying this
apparent knowledge, however, is a lack of understanding of what it means “to
Observed Problems in the Classroom
The following are a few
examples of the superficial understanding of science and some misconceptions
students in my classes have demonstrated. Students correctly tell me that
science is “empirical” but when asked to explain what this means they
stumble around trying to explain this in their own words or provide good
examples. Many students are quick to show their knowledge of science and the
scientific method (henceforth, TSM). When asked how TSM works, a typical
response might be, “Well, you have a hypothesis and then you test it.” And
when asked to define ‘hypothesis’, the typical response is: “It’s an
educated guess”. Asking students to go beyond this ready answer becomes a
painful exercise for many. To the question of how data may be collected, a
favorite reply is “you do an experiment”. Students are also limited in their
thinking about such related concepts as assumptions and inferences. I was
speaking to a pre-med biology major who recently took my sociology course.
The issue of assumptions came up and she commented that making assumptions
is dangerous and that she will not be able to make assumptions when she
becomes a doctor because that could jeopardize her patients. She was trying
to make the further point that we in sociology can make assumptions but in
“the sciences” making assumptions is less acceptable. I was struck by the
conversation with this student because it revealed some misconceptions about
the scientific enterprise that I believe many students possess and it also
hinted at a potential source of such misconceptions.
In this essay I suggest an
explanation and point to some implications for teaching TSM. Based on my
observations and probing of student thinking, I believe an explanation for
such misconceptions can be sought in the concept of culture and I suggest
that courses in the social sciences have the potential for providing a
corrective to these misconceptions. While I draw examples mostly from my own
classes in anthropology and sociology, my experiences in these two
disciplines are clearly applicable to the other social sciences because of
shared concerns and concepts. For instance, the concept of culture is an
essential concept in anthropology and sociology but is also relevant to all
the social sciences. Most social scientists conceive of culture as something
that may at times be difficult to define concretely but which nevertheless
is composed of material and nonmaterial items, the latter typically
comprised of beliefs, values, and norms (Ferrante, 2008; Macionis, 2009).
In this essay I point out some of the elements of the “culture of science”
and the “culture of education” that contribute to student misconceptions of
The scientific community and
the educational institution can rightly be considered ‘subcultures’ each
with its own set of material and nonmaterial components. Scientists,
including social scientists, share a set of beliefs, values, and norms and
employ various material items that form the toolkits of both the natural and
social sciences. This is also true of educators. Just as cultural
traditions in society are rarely questioned, so too, accepted ways of doing
things in science and in education become normative and routine.
The culture of science and
the culture of education inadvertently and ironically contribute to student
misconceptions about TSM. The physical and natural sciences (biology,
chemistry, physics, etc.) have contributed to the culture of science
historically since it has been in these disciplines that the tenets and
procedures of scientific research have been most rigorously established and
then emulated by others. Textbooks as part of the culture of education have
also contributed to some of the limited notions and misconceptions students
have come to embrace. For instance, Hood (2006) describes how some of the
erroneous views students have about qualitative research are, in part, based
on limitations of textbooks themselves. As she points out, students tend to
regard textbooks as “gospel truth”, thus requiring teachers to “go beyond
both textbook myths and mainstream folklore” in order to overcome some of
these misconceptions (p. 207).
Some of the weaknesses of
student thinking about TSM have been revealed time and again in a simple
exercise I employ to engage students in deeper discussions about TSM. This
exercise involves showing a cube with the numbers one through six on its
sides with the even numbers underlined (Keyes, 2004; National Academy of
Science, 1998). The exercise has obvious limitations but it is meant to show
in a simplified way aspects of TSM. Students make initial observation about
what they see; they are shown all sides except the bottom of the cube such
that they see all the numbers except the one on the bottom. I ask them to
formulate a question, and then to propose a possible answer (a hypothetical
statement) based on their observations. Then they suggest potential bits of
evidence that might support their hypothetical statement. In the end, I ask
them if they are convinced of the answer (whether the hypothesis has been
‘proven’ to their satisfaction). I point out that the evidence they have
provided has convinced me of the correctness of the ‘hypothesis’. However,
most students remain absolutely skeptical with only 5% - 8% accepting the
conclusion. To be skeptical is certainly an essential part of the culture of
science. However, when asked to explain the reasons for their skepticism
most students provide a simplistic answer that reveals a rather limited view
of science. In the class activity described above, the bottom of the cube is
never shown; therefore, most students are very skeptical about accepting the
conclusion I have reached. Asked about their skepticism, they first point
out that since they have not actually seen the bottom of the cube, the
conclusion is not ‘proven’. They suggest that anything could be at the
bottom and that perhaps I have tricked them by not even putting a number on
the bottom of the cube. Many of these students were majoring in the sciences
so I became curious about how their perception of TSM might be informed by
the science courses they take. To get an idea I had students collect
definitions from their science textbooks. In one class there were twenty
definitions from courses such as biology, chemistry, and geology. The
natural sciences provide a view of TSM that is certainly accurate and
suitable but which inadvertently has led to certain misconceptions.
Textbook Definitions of the Scientific Method
Definitions of the
scientific method can be found in textbooks in both the social and natural
sciences and, while some variation exists, all have certain common features.
Students collected a number of definitions of TSM from textbooks in the
natural (“hard”) sciences and then were asked to compare these to the one
provided in their sociology textbook. Some definitions list the steps or
process involved while others provide a general overview of what is meant by
TSM. Take for instance, the following examples.
From a textbook in geology
text: “Scientific method – a logical, orderly approach that involves
gathering data, formulating and testing hypotheses, and proposing theories”
(Wicander & Monroe, 2006). From a chemistry textbook: “Scientific method –
Scientific questions must be asked, and experiments must be carried out to
find their answers” (McMurry & Fay, 2008). From a biology text: “The classic
vision of the scientific method is that observations lead to hypotheses that
in turn make experimentally testable predictions” (Raven, Losos, Mason,
Singer, & Johnson, 2008). From
a psychology textbook: “The scientific method refers to a set of
assumptions, attitudes, and procedures that guide researchers in creating
questions to investigate, in generating evidence, and drawing conclusions” (Hockenbury
& Hockenbury, 2000). From a sociology textbook: “The scientific method is an
approach to data collection that relies on two assumptions: (1) Knowledge
about the world is acquired through observation, and (2) the truth of the
knowledge is confirmed by verification--that is, by others making the same
observations” (Ferrante, 2008).
It is clear that TSM is
perceived similarly in both the natural and social sciences, although one
notices slight differences in emphasis as suggested by the vocabulary used
in these definitions. The similarity is certainly expected since the social
sciences attempt to emulate the systematic approach developed in the
physical and natural sciences. Common terminology represents the common
jargon that is part of the lexicon of science. Students in the social
sciences understand that culture has certain basic components such as
language, beliefs, values, and norms. Hence, the lexicon of TSM can be
equated to the linguistic component of the culture of science. The lexicon
of TSM has been adopted not only by the social sciences but also by general
education and the public.
The most salient terms, what
linguistic anthropologists would call the “basic vocabulary”, of TSM include
“systematic”, “procedure”, “empirical”, “method”, and “objective”. More
specific but equally salient terms are “discovery”, “fact”, “hypothesis”,
and “experiment”. The first set of words point to a more general definition
of TSM while the second set suggest some of the more specific elements of
TSM. Both the natural sciences and the social sciences employ the same
lexicon with very little variation, an understandable situation if you
consider that both the natural and social sciences share the ‘culture of
science’. A common culture of science would include not only a lexicon
(language) but also norms (rules of behavior) and sets of beliefs. The norms
of the culture of science revolve around how scientific work is to be
conducted, the procedures used, and the steps taken in doing research. This
view is explicit when Bernard states that “The norms of science are clear”
(1995, p. 3) and proceeds to state that these norms include objectivity, a
systematic method, and reliability. Quoting Lastrucci (1963), Bernard
further points out: “Each scientific discipline has developed a set of
techniques for gathering and handling data, but there is, in general, a
single scientific method. The method is based on three assumptions: (a) that
reality is ‘out there’ to be discovered; (b) that direct observation is the
way to discover it; and (c) that material explanations for observable
phenomena are always sufficient, and that metaphysical explanations are
never needed” (Bernard 1995, pg. 3-4). This description summarizes rather
well the major elements of TSM that are largely shared by both natural and
How Misconceptions Develop
Most social scientists
across disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and
political science would agree that the culture of science as described above
is shared by natural and social scientists alike. Possessing a common
culture does not prevent, however, the development of certain
misconceptions. I focus on two factors (processes) that have contributed to
the misconceptions about the TSM among social science students: (1) The
social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science,
etc) have adopted much of the culture of science without much modification
and (2) much of this adoption comes about through socialization.
The first factor deals with
the diffusion or the spread of cultural elements from the natural to the
social sciences. Chief among these is the spread and adoption of the
language of science. This is expected since historically the social sciences
have tried to emulate the natural sciences. In my classes it is evident that
students have internalized the lexicon of science without giving it much
thought. This is quite understandable. After all, learning the culture of
science is analogous to learning one’s culture through the process of
socialization. The culture of science is shared because members of the
scientific community “have undergone similar educations and professional
initiations; in the process they have absorbed the same technical literature
and drawn many of the same lessons from it” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 177). Whether
socialization is achieved formally or informally, most individuals come to
internalize cultural patterns without much analytical reflection. At some
point students seem to take TSM for granted, much as we take language for
granted, using it without really reflecting on it. This is reinforced by the
fact that the scientific lexicon consists of a number of terms that are also
part of our everyday English-language. Hence, the lexicon of TSM sounds
familiar to students who have heard these terms used over and over again and
is indeed part of everyday vocabulary. Students come to believe that they
know what they are talking about by merely employing the correct
terminology. For example, the words “fact” and “proof” are used in science
and are also part of everyday American lexicon. The common everyday use of
such terms gives student a sense of comfort and familiarity since these
terms are also part of the everyday language. For most students, a fact is a
fact, and proof is proof; if something is a fact, it needs no further
exploration and is simply accepted as an absolute, especially if these
‘facts’ come out of the halls of the hard sciences. Terms such ‘hypothesis’
and ‘theory’ are perhaps more specific to the culture of science, but they
have also become part of the lexicon of every English speaker and hence,
carry everyday connotations that may actually differ from the way scientists
use these terms. Hypothesis and theory are often perceived by students (and
the general public) as opposed to ‘fact’ and ‘proof’ such that if something
is a ‘theory’ it cannot be a fact. This is exemplified by the common
misconception about the word theory. Take for instance, the current view by
many Americans that evolution is “just a theory”. Most students and
Americans in general do not consider that a theory (such as the theory of
evolution) is both a theory and a fact as Stephen Jay Gould eloquently
reminds us (1981). The diffusion of TSM method beginning with its lexicon is
thus often superficially understood.
By simply borrowing the
lexicon of science and failing to see TSM as a social construct, students
often develop misconceptions and a narrow view of how science works. They
also fail to see that as a cultural construct, TSM is an ideal that at times
must be adjusted to differing contexts. As Oren (2006) and Gordon (2002)
point out, TSM has certain limitations when applied to highly complex
phenomena as social behavior. Even Bauer (1992, p. 147), who is a chemist
and hence a ‘hard scientist’, points out that “the scientific method is an
ideal”. To most undergraduate students, however, TSM appears concrete and an
inviolable aspect of doing scientific work. The first inclination of
students is to suggest that experimentation is how one must gather data in
order to confirm or disprove a hypothesis. But when confronted with a social
research question involving humans, students stumble around trying to figure
out how or what sort of an experiment one could devise. Obviously, some
social experiments are possible and are indeed carried out, but it seems
that students come to the social sciences with a fairly narrow conception of
‘experiment’ that is more appropriate to laboratory settings.
Limitations and Misconceptions
Focusing on the culture of
science and education and the processes of diffusion and socialization helps
to explain why many students have a limited view of science. The problems
I have observed are clearly intertwined such that addressing one
misconception necessarily brings up other related ones. Some concepts are
interpreted or perceived in limited or literal terms and other important
scientific elements are more likely to be simply ignored. Common tendencies
I have observed include the following.
- Literal view of
“Observation” – While observation is the cornerstone of TSM, students
tend to be literalists. Textbooks teach them the importance of “direct
observation” and in the mind of many students “direct observation” means
exactly that! This is ironic, because while they hold onto the belief in
the importance of direct observation, they are often all too willing to
accept non-empirical conclusions, so long as these come from textbooks,
experts, or other authorities.
- Absolutist view of
“Proof” – Students often see scientific findings as definitive,
concrete, and absolute as in a mathematical truth. Their
mathematical-like definition of proof results in a misplaced skepticism;
something cannot be proven if it has not been directly observed.
Nevertheless, they are often willing to accept repeated citations as
proof as long as such repetition comes from perceived “experts” or
authorities such as textbooks.
- Narrow meaning of
“Fact” – Like the concept of ‘proof’, there is a tendency to see fact as
absolute truth and as an opposition to theories and hypotheses. In a
similar way, they often see the findings that come from the hard
sciences as simply factual, real and concrete. Pointing out how the
‘facts’ of science have changed over the years (such as the ‘fact’ that
Pluto was but now is not a planet) helps students begin to see the
changing nature of ‘facts’.
- Narrow view of
“experimentation” – The physical and natural sciences tend to emphasize
experimentation as a key way to collect data. Indeed, some of the
definitions of TSM provided above clearly point to this emphasis. The
common image of experimentation is that of laboratory experiments and
medical clinical trials. The importance of experimentation is reinforced
in standard textbooks in both natural and social sciences as the
textbook definitions cited above exemplify. Moore & Vodopich (2008)
are explicit in showing the importance of experimentation in data
collection. They state: “Do experiments to gather data”. Such guidance
in the natural sciences becomes part of how students perceive TSM as a
whole, leaving them puzzled about how to be scientific in fields like
sociology or political science since experimentation does not become
readily apparent or feasible in the social sciences.
- Neglecting the role of
“Inference” – Few students recognize the significance of inference in
science even though inference is fundamental to all science. At the
heart of inductive reasoning is the ability to infer from the available
evidence and yet few students even consider its significance in ‘normal
science’ to use Kuhn’s term (1970). This neglect is due, in part, to
previously mentioned misconceptions about ‘observation’, on the one
hand, and ‘facts’ on the other. To many students, inference does not
seem compatible with their rather literalist view of empiricism and
facts. If something is inferred it must mean that one’s conclusion was
not really observed; hence, students see an inference as characterized
by uncertainty and, therefore, unscientific. And yet, the prevalence and
importance of inference in science is demonstrated by scholars who have
directly addressed the concept. McMullin (1992) in his Aquinas lecture,
The Inference that Makes Science, demonstrates in a philosophical
and historical perspective how inference has been an element of science
beginning with Aristotle’s view that ‘demonstration’ is what makes
- Neglecting the role of
“Assumptions” –Another neglected or misunderstood factor is the role of
assumptions in the course of science. Many students believe that
assumptions are to be avoided because assumptions suggest that something
is not solidly factual, such as was illustrated by the anecdote told
above about the biology student who mistrusts assumptions. In the view
of many students, the term assumption has a negative connotation. Like
the concept of inference, students seem to believe that assumptions are
contrary to science.
Implications & Strategies for Teaching
The social sciences today
strive to be scientific in their research. For instance, sociology from the
time of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, has explicitly cultivated the
belief that society and social behavior can and should be studied from a
positivist approach, a long-lasting legacy seen in contemporary disciplines
such sociology, anthropology, and psychology, all of which see themselves as
scientific. Of course, there have been many discussions about whether or
not, or to what extent, sociology and other social sciences can rightly
claim to be a science (e.g., Gordon 2002; Oren 2006; Bauer 1992). The
distinction between the “hard” and “soft” sciences is often brought up to
show that the social sciences are different from the natural sciences in
their methodology and subject matter. These sorts of debates
notwithstanding, the current consensus in sociology is that sociology is
indeed scientific in its overall goals and methodology. As Bauer (1992, p.
137) points out, “social scientists are much more consciously scrupulous to
follow the scientific method than are scientists themselves…” In so doing
the social sciences have tended to reinforce a rather strict view of TSM
that perpetuates some of the misconceptions noted above.
Social scientists have long
been aware that some of the methods employed successfully in the physical
sciences cannot be directly applied in the social sciences. For instance,
many years ago Chapin (1917) with regard to sociology observed that the
“experimental method has brought notable achievements in physical science”
but in sociology strict control of conditions and isolating factors that
such a methodology requires is not so easily achieved. He concluded that a
statistical method in sociology would be analogous to the experimental
method in physical science. Similarly, but ninety-two years after Chapin’s
observations, Pigliucci states that the “so-called soft sciences are
concerned largely with complex issues that require sophisticated, but often
less clear cut, approaches; these approaches may be less satisfactory (but
more realistic) than strong inference, in that they yield probabilistic (as
opposed to qualitative) answers” (2009, p.3).
In a similar vein, Lenkeit (2009) enumerates some of the difficulties of
attempting to apply the scientific method as developed in the natural
sciences to the social sciences. Among the difficulties are the complexity
of the subject matter and the difficulty of isolating variables. These
difficulties, however, should be welcomed for they provide the opportunity
to guide students into a deeper understanding of TSM. Misconceptions
students have can be corrected while developing a deeper appreciation of the
complexities of the subject matter with which the social sciences deal.
Since textbooks are used
routinely in higher education today, it is also important to consider the
role that textbooks play in education. This implicates both scientists and
social scientists in perpetuating the limited view of science that students
appear to hold. Another implication is that social scientists can play a
significant role in providing balance and a broader view of science and TSM
than they have done in the past.
Instructors in the social
sciences can work to ameliorate this situation by implementing teaching
strategies that encourage students to think more critically about TSM. In so
doing we help students become stronger thinkers. Developing such teaching
strategies tailored to specific disciplines requires some creativity on the
part of instructors. Nevertheless I suggest a few general approaches that I
and others have used that are applicable to all disciplines and with some
modifications can be customized.
- TSM Cube. As described
earlier in this paper, I use what I call “TSM Cube” to engage students
in a discussion of the basic steps of scientific research. It is a
simple activity that only requires a small box onto which you can write
or tape the numbers 1 – 6. In this activity, which is also described in
a publication of National Academy of Science (1998) and in my
application(Keyes, 2004), students are asked to make observations, raise
questions, formulate a hypothesis, and provide some possible supports
(evidence) for a hypothesis, which is generally stated as “The number X
is at the bottom of the cube”. This is a ‘hypothesis’ because the
students are never shown the bottom of the cube and so they must
formulate a reasonable “educated guess”, to use the students’ favorite
definition of hypothesis. I have found this activity useful to address
concepts such empirical observation, assumptions, inference, proof, and
skepticism and their significance in science.
- The Necker Cube.
Another activity I employ that is useful in showing the role of
perspective and viewpoint in research is to use a Necker Cube. Any
number of other well-know images of optical illusions can be used to
discuss the significance of viewpoint, bias, objectivity, and fact in
conducting research. (Two other common optical illusion images are the
duck-rabbit and the vase-lady silhouettes). Using such optical illusions
in class are not only fun for students but provide an opportunity for
instructors to discuss the greater complexity of taken-for-granted
beliefs such as the idea that science is totally objective or the view
that a fact. The concept of assumption can also be discussed by using
such visual aids. The well-known Müller-Lyer lines are also useful as a
springboard to a discussion about assumptions and perceptions and how
such concepts affect scientific research (Barnes, Bloor & Henry, 1996).
Obviously, viewpoint or perspective influences science starting with the
questions that are posed and how data is interpreted.
- Beyond the Text. It
was noted above that students tend to trust the authority and
truthfulness of textbook. They seldom question what is presented in
textbooks. Hood (2006) employs a strategy that she calls “teaching
against the text” to encourage students to question what is contained in
textbooks. Hood encourages students to recognize that textbooks
sometimes contain errors and some material in textbooks can be
contested. Hood administers a True/False test to show how apparent
‘factual’ statements about qualitative research are often only partial
truths. For instance, Hood notes that the statement “Participant
observation is the field work method most commonly used by qualitative
sociologists” is only a partial truth. She uses such True/False
statements as a method to discuss other common misconceptions. Hood also
has students find published examples of various types of qualitative
research to discuss epistemological questions in research.
Epistemological questions, Hood points out, are hardly ever directly
addressed in introductory textbooks. Many students find that questioning
the text leads to confusion and uncertainty because students have been
socialized to accept the truth of science and what is contained in
textbooks. Hood concludes that “teaching against the text” fosters
critical thinking even if students resist.
- Critical Thinking
Questions. Perhaps one strategy that may be sometimes overlooked is to
simply ask students to apply the eight elements of reasoning proposed by
the Center for Critical Thinking (1993). While many instructors already
use these in various ways and degrees, using them consistently and often
will help students gain a better appreciation of not only TSM but the
actual content of the disciplines they are studying. The main elements
that promote critical analysis include questions of: purpose,
perspective, problem, evidence, assumptions, concepts, implications,
consequences. These elements can readily be employed in a number of
teaching strategies in all disciplines (see for example, Keyes & Keyes,
2004). Indeed, this is a simple way to go beyond the text.
Teachers must go beyond the
routine. We reinforce minimal understanding when we assume that students
understand when they may be simply repeating words without given them deep
consideration. Engaging students in deeper conversation can broaden the
narrow views of TSM. Teaching techniques that help give students application
opportunities require greater investment in time and energy. Given the
structure of university and textbook organization this may mean sacrificing
some content or some material for the gains in greater critical analysis.
Perhaps textbooks are also in need of some revision since they continue the
practice of simply parroting the definitions that all too frequently provide
superficial views of TSM.
While teaching the
scientific method, we should encourage students to develop a deeper
understanding of research, even if that requires us to question how we
ourselves present the methodology. Too frequently students have a narrow
view of science, limited by the folk culture of science. For instance,
students tend to equate experimentation and quantifiable data with science.
This view spills over into the social science. The social sciences have an
opportunity, because of the nature and complexity of their subject matter,
to demonstrate that TSM entails more than the stereotypical and narrow
conception students have of science being carried out in laboratories by
people in white lab coats. The rather pervasive view promulgated in
textbooks that science involves formulating hypotheses, controlling
variables, and experimentation can be broadened by the social sciences.
Bauer provocatively states: “That scientists in practice do not actually use
the scientific method, and that the scientific method cannot adequately
explain the successes of science, does not mean that the method is not worth
talking about, that it is not worth holding as an ideal” (1992, p. 147). He
further points out that science is a human activity and “the scientific
method specifies some rules that, if followed, permit one to learn” (149).
It is, therefore, a worthy endeavor for all teachers, including those in the
social sciences, to not only pass on the vocabulary of science but to help
students gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of its utility.
I am thankful for the helpful comments provided by the anonymous reviewers
as well as those provided by my colleagues, Armando Abney and Janet
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