Pissing monkeys and the scientific method

Introductory science textbooks – the kind we use in my Intro Earth Science class – typically have an introduction section where they explain science as this very linear hypothesis-driven endeavor. Scientists follow this recipe in the process of doing science: they start with a hypothesis, gather data, and test the hypothesis. According to the textbooks, that’s basically what scientists do. While there’s definitely an essence of science that this captures (something fundamentally different from other ways of going about things), it does make the whole enterprise come across as very clean, methodical, and frankly a bit boring and uncreative.

The problem doesn’t stop with introductory textbooks either. When we write papers, or present results at meetings, most scientists (myself included) typically frame the work as if we ended up exactly where we planned to go. And, of course, it all started out with this nice clearly-stated hypothesis. It’s cleaner this way, helps us synthesize things, and leads to a more straightforward narrative for explaining what’s new. The only thing is that my lived experience of being a scientist is that its never this clean and simple.

Two things got me thinking about these things this week. First, I’m reading ‘Underland’ by Robert MacFarlane (highly recommend!) and it has this awesome quote by Merlin Sheldrake, whose book on fungi I have to read:

“I have this plan that for each formal scientific paper I ever publish I will also write its dark twin, its underground mirror-piece—the true story of how the data for that cool, tidy hypothesis-evidence-proof paper actually got acquired. I want to write about the happenstance and the shaved bumblebees and the pissing monkeys and the drunken conversations and the fuck-ups that actually bring science into being. This is the frothy, mad network that underlies and interconnects all scientific knowledge—but about which we so rarely say anything.”

The second, was that this week my first graduate student defended his thesis! He passed, and did a really awesome job. Part of the process at the end was helping him synthesize all his work and arrange it into this organized package where he presented hypothesis, data, results, conclusions. I should add that *this isn’t a bad thing* at all, it’s entirely necessary, because otherwise you have all this work and no synthesis of how it all fits together. But it also seems like something is lost in the process (perhaps that’s the underground mirror-piece that Merlin talks about) that really captures how it all went down, which involved a fair bit of metaphorical fumbling in the dark (no pissing monkeys unfortunately). That other stuff is science too, and I wonder whether it’s important to communicate that part too, somehow. This might help non-scientists see the human, messy, but creative part of science. The part of doing science that can make it both frustrating, but ultimately the part that I think makes it fun.

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