Many people have misconceptions about what it means to “do research” and employ the scientific method. Some view researching a topic as simply gathering facts that support their existing beliefs. They don’t want to be proven wrong, so they only look for evidence that confirms what they already think is true.
The true essence of research lies in the quest for knowledge and the pursuit of truth. It involves a systematic and rigorous approach that relies on empirical evidence, critical thinking, and objective analysis. A desire to uncover new insights, challenge existing theories, and test hypotheses to arrive at reliable conclusions.
A note about “doing research”
In this post, I’ll conflate (combine) science, research, and the scientific method. There are some key differences between the concepts of science, research, and the scientific method. Science is the overarching pursuit of knowledge through systematic study. Research is the practical application of scientific inquiry to investigate specific questions. The scientific method is the procedural framework guiding standardized scientific research.
While related, these terms have distinct meanings in terms of the scope and application of systematic investigation aimed at building knowledge and testing natural phenomena. Understanding the differences helps clarify the purpose and process behind scientific discovery.
Increasingly in society, we’re seeing individuals who view the fact that science learns, improves, and many times disproves what was previously known. They use this as evidence that all science is wrong because it sometimes gets things wrong. Alternatively, we’re also seeing individuals who “do their own research” and ignore other viewpoints, evidence, or information.
I’m in full support of democratizing research, science, and the scientific method. But let’s examine these mindsets a bit more deeply and think about how to do your own research.
An ongoing process
Recently while visiting some friends for dinner. Someone was reflecting on how “you can’t trust anything anymore.” To back up this thesis, the person indicated that when they were growing up, you could eat shrimp, and then for a couple of years their doctor indicated that you couldn’t eat shrimp, and then now it seems like you can eat shrimp. This anecdote was used to inform a general belief that because science “changes” then it must all be wrong.
In contrast, the scientific method requires testing hypotheses and being open to changing your mind. Science is an ongoing process of updating theories based on new evidence. Sometimes ideas that were once widely accepted get overturned by new discoveries. Rather than showing science is unreliable, this demonstrates the system is working as intended. As we learn more, our models of reality improve.
Some look at instances where science has disproven past theories and use this to claim science itself isn’t real. But the fact that new evidence can update our beliefs is a feature, not a bug. Assuming an idea is absolutely true, immune from questioning, and not requiring evidence – that is the problem. A good scientific mindset requires humility and doubt. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
During a recent meeting, a coworker said they noticed a problem with the younger generation and their use of screens. They thought that young people weren’t taking things seriously and struggled to connect with others. I mentioned that I also saw students constantly on their screens, but I shared some research and suggested that we think about how we teach in light of these new technologies. However, my coworker dismissed these ideas and blamed screens as the main issue without considering other factors or individual differences.
In contrast, genuine research involves a willingness to question assumptions, explore alternative viewpoints, and consider all available evidence. This requires examining all of the evidence, not just the ones that you see, or fit within your field of view. This approach fosters intellectual growth and encourages the discovery of new perspectives. By employing the scientific method, researchers aim to minimize bias, rely on valid and reliable data, and subject their findings to scrutiny and replication.
Unfortunately, some individuals misconstrue research as a tool to confirm their own biases or validate pre-existing beliefs. This confirmation bias can hinder progress and lead to distorted interpretations of data. It is crucial to recognize this inclination and strive for intellectual openness, embracing the possibility of being proven wrong.
Scientists must be willing to question their assumptions and abandon hypotheses that are not supported by data. Rather than seeking to confirm beliefs, science seeks to disconfirm incorrect theories by testing them against reality. As Carl Sagan noted, “In science, it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
Think like a scientist
To employ a more scientific mindset in daily life, here are three attitudes to practice:
- Be open to revising your beliefs. Don’t cling to an idea simply because you want it to be true or have believed it for a long time. Follow the evidence wherever it leads.
- Question your assumptions. Routinely check whether your most basic premises about the world are supported by facts. Don’t just seek confirming evidence. Try to falsify your hypotheses.
- Remain intellectually humble. Admit when you are wrong or lack knowledge in an area. Strive to understand, not to be right. Seek truth, not validation.
The scientific method remains the best tool we have for understanding reality. By employing an attitude of open inquiry, battling confirmation bias, and willingness to abandon disproven theories, we can get closer to the truth – both personally and as a society.
Research should not be reduced to a subjective exercise of cherry-picking information that aligns with preconceived notions. It is a rigorous and impartial process that aims to expand knowledge, challenge existing ideas, and contribute to the advancement of society as a whole. Embracing a genuine research mindset entails recognizing the importance of objectivity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility.