Sunday, April 11, 2010

How to Ask a Scientific Question

“Just about everything starts with a question. Usually, scientists come up with questions by looking at the world around them. "Hey look! What's that?" See that squiggly thing at the end of the sentence? A question has been born.”

“Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much, and so much only, as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.”

The first of these quotes is from an educational website for children. The second quote is from one of the first modern philosopher's of science. Francis Bacon, the 17th century author, wrote the Novum Organum (The New Method), one of the first books about how to do science.

Although Bacon writes in more abstract language, he agrees that “everything starts with a question.” He asserts that a person is “the interpreter of nature” and that the only way to interpret nature is to observe it. In Bacon's view, nature generates questions for the scientist. Nature calls out for interpretation. Both quotes paint a picture of a person who observes an aspect of nature that requires explanation.

Both quotes assume that questions about nature will come up. “Everything starts with a question.” Nature is something that obviously calls for interpretation. But as soon as we start asking questions, as soon as we begin to develop interpretations,we have to make difficult choices. How should we decide what aspects of the world are worth explaining? Which phenomena require interpretation and which are just common sense?The scientists who research albatross mating behavior and who develop hypotheses to explain why there are female-female pairs, have decided that female-female pairing is a phenomenon that requires interpretation. We have to explain why two female albatrosses would work together to raise a chick, but we don't have to explain why a female and a male albatross would work together to raise a chick. The fact that there are female-female pairs says something about us, but the fact that there are female-male pairs doesn't. Female-male pairs don't seem worthy of investigation on their own.

Scientists ask the questions they do because a phenomenon strikes them as being unusual. What might be anthropomorphically called “homosexual” behavior in animals seems like something we have to explain only because we assume that “heterosexual” behavior is the norm. Scientific disciplines often generate questions as they go along. For example, one cannot ask which gene causes homosexuality if one doesn't know what a gene is. However, scientific disciplines need to start from somewhere. A question has to seem worth asking. And what questions seem worth asking will depend on what culture a person lives in.

For example, there have been societies where sexual activity between men is commonplace and accepted. Would scientists from these cultures find homosexuality in nature worth investigating? Perhaps they would want to investigate species that don't exhibit “homosexual” behavior.

Because scientists have to choose which questions to ask and which questions have common sense answers, scientific research necessarily bears the mark of the society that produces it. A society that assumes homosexuality as an aberrant behavior, will have a different science than a society that assumes homosexuality as a normal, “natural” behavior. But how different? Different in what ways?


  1. "Which phenomena require interpretation and which are just common sense?"

    I believe that this question gets to the heart of the issue. Your blog name is "The need for Critique." I turn your question back to you, what if anything need not be critiqued, can be taken as a given, can be assumed common sense? If you say nothing, then I must tell you I will feel insecure, stripped of my foundation. And it is this very foundation through which I find the strength to ask questions.

  2. I would distinguish between critique and skepticism. In his "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant does not criticize reason, nor does he question whether reason is a good foundation, rather, he tries to articulate the limits of reason. He asks, "What kinds of jobs is reason good for, and where does reason run into trouble?" Similarly, in my two posts, I have been exploring the limits of the scientific method. What sorts of questions is the scientific method good for, and where does it fall short.

    The scientific method cannot produce the questions which scientists investigate. So where do these questions come from?

    Finally, the fact that you would feel insecure if you questioned all your beliefs, does not necessarily mean that you shouldn't. I have spoken with people who say, "God must exist. If God didn't, the world would have no meaning." This isn't really an argument for God's existence, rather it is a reason why the world wouldn't be as good without a God.