How to Think Like a Scientist

The most common way to think like a scientist is the four-step method of observing, hypothesizing, experimenting, and analyzing. In science, this is essentially called the scientific method. However, there are many ways to find scientific truth.

A hard-core Popperian might say that the only scientific fact that exists is one that can be falsified. Alternatively, you might consider Aristotle or Richard Feynman, who would say that you need to know every fact about a specific phenomenon to understand it.

Image of how to think like a scientist - the process and the body of knowledge.

The four-step method for thinking like a scientist is:

1. Observe

We live in the world, we notice patterns, and an idea is born in our minds. We test that idea and sometimes find some firm footing – as Karl Popper explained:

The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

– Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Example: Aristotle’s theory of gravity stated that objects fall at a rate proportional to their weight. But according to the legend, Galileo thought differently. Galileo thought that objects would fall at the same rate regardless of weight.

2. Hypothesize

A scientific fact is something that can be disproven or falsified. If we ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, then this is something we cannot test. This is not a scientific question. But if we can ask it in the form of a testable experiment then we’re immediately on much better ground. It doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear, that the case is settled, but it means that we have at least tried to prove ourselves wrong.

Example: Hypothesis: a feather and a hammer when dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa will arrive on the ground at the same time. Due to air friction, this is not an ideal experiment but in a vacuum, it’s a different story.

3. Experiment

Go through with the experiment.

Example:

4. Analyze

Analyze the results. Did what you expect happen or not? But also ask yourself why.

This is the basic idea. But as we know reality is different from theory. Studies like Little Albert, the Stanford Prison – or Milgram experiments are no longer allowed. Modern science is not only limited by ethics but also physical realities such as “what do you mean I can’t blow up the moon to test how it affects the tides?” Sometimes we simply lack the means for an experiment.

But!

This is where the ingenuity of scientists comes into play. If we are unable to do human studies then we can test on animals. If we cannot blow up planets then maybe we can simulate that in a computer. Research designs and study methods are ever-evolving. Scientists are continuously looking to find better ways to investigate the universe. The methods that we end up using depend on the materials, limitations, and creativity we have available to us.

The Bottom Line

The most basic way to think like a scientist is to observe, hypothesize, experiment, and analyze. As you develop expertise in a field you will find and or develop better and more specific ways to think like a scientist. Another way to think like a scientist is to read what scientists think. There are books on science fiction, paperback books on science, and even audiobooks on science.

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