Sciencegeek Fundamentals #1: An Introduction to the Scientific Method, by way of Chewbacca

by David Ng



(Fancy pdf of this piece in its entirety also available here)

Section No. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

For the last couple of years, when I’m speaking or lecturing to a larger audience, I would sometimes throw out the following question: “Who is Chewbacca?

I do this because I’m curious on whether there are actually people in this world who have never heard of Chewbacca. Which, as a big fan of Star Wars, is a possibility that escapes me. Still, without fail, there are always a few. In fact, if I were to plot graphs around this question, I would notice that “Ignorance of Chewbacca” has been going up in a slow but steady fashion over the last few years. Furthermore, my small and caveat laden sample of data currently suggests that at least 5% of the world has no clue what this Chewbacca thing is [1].

Then, of course, things would get strange. Because usually at this point, I might ask those knowledgeable in the audience, to describe “Chewbacca” to those who are not. Here, the references to Star Wars specifically and science fiction in general come out. This includes discussions about co-piloting space ships, ripping arms off, and descriptions of a weapon that is a cross between a laser and a crossbow. The word “wookie” will inevitably surface, and then, remarkably you might say, someone will begin to make Chewbacca sounds – something best described as a long vibrating groan suggestive of yearning [2]. Indeed, if I give it a chance, the whole lecture hall might even begin making Chewbacca sounds, which is something that is both uniformly glorious and bizarre at the same time. Interestingly, none of this really seems to help the 5% who confessed to being Chewbacca ignorant. If anything, the 5%, looking at the strange proceedings around them, tend to look confused if not a little frightened.

I bring this up, because this silly idea of Chewbacca ignorance is a bit like asking people, “What is science?” It’s one of those things where a proper answer is actually very rich in detail, and nuanced in ways that can be surprising. Furthermore, these details and nuances tend to be only obvious to those firmly embedded within science culture itself. And much like the Chewbacca example, if you explain this to a person who is not part of this culture, it would probably sound a little bewildering and frightening too.

To illustrate this, let’s try something right now. Find someone you know who isn’t into science.

This is probably pretty easy, since this is likely most people. Now ask them point blank, “What is science?” Undoubtedly, you will get all manner of responses – many of which will reference graphs, measurements and technology, perhaps with nods to things like physics, chemistry and biology. But if you listen carefully, I would bet that the responses are vague at best, and certainly not a reflection of the richness involved in what I consider a proper answer. Sort of like the injustice that goes with describing Chewbacca as simply, “a character in a science fiction movie.”

To me, this is a shame. Not the Chewbacca part (which is a different kind of shame), but the bit about science. To me, the idea of the general public reacting to the fundamentals of science literacy, in a way that the aforementioned 5% might react to a wookie sound, is a very bad thing. In fact, I would suggest that this confusion or lack of familiarity over science is actually a dangerous thing. This is because, unlike wookies, science has an increasingly active and prominent role in real life.

As well, this lack of clarity is not about science literacy in the sense that we worry about citizens who do not know about greenhouse gases, or how DNA is replicated, or how differential calculus is done – in other words, it’s not really about specific technical details (although this is important too). But rather, it is mostly about whether a person is literate of the process; whether they appreciate the steps and parameters which define how science is done. It is mostly about these points because they represent a framework that provides the world with a very powerful way of knowing things (epistemology for those who prefer big words).

Such parameters, of course, are often neatly laid out in what many would call “The Scientific Method.” Almost everyone will hear about this at some point in their lives, although it appears to be a topic that mostly presents itself at younger ages, at the elementary school levels for instance. However, one also finds that as the student gets older, its premise will be continually diluted by an increasing glut of science technical detail. This is an unfortunate reality of how science is taught in schools – there are information hierarchies that must be covered in order to get to the next level, and because the volume of that information is intense, there is simply little time for students to reexamine the basic principles of the scientific method and of science culture itself. Furthermore, this does not even include those young students who decide to avoid the sciences altogether.

Which brings us back to aforementioned mention of shame. After all, shouldn’t we encourage all students and citizens to continually reassess the scientific method: more so, since an elementary student is hardly in the best position to fully appreciate its complexity? Isn’t the scientific method an icon of rationality – something that you hope all decision makers, from individuals making small choices to leaders making large ones, would take time to appreciate fully?

Unfortunately, this isn’t how the world currently works. Which is disappointing: because regardless of all this talk about society and danger and decisions, it would do us well to be reminded that through it all, the Scientific Method (and what it has produced) is, quite frankly, awesome.

So for now, we’ll end this section with something basic. We’ll end it with a flowchart depicting the scientific method. Perhaps something with steps like the below:

1. See something.
2. Think of a reason why.
3. Figure out a way to check your reason.
4. And?
5. Now, everyone gets to dump on you.
6. Repeat, until a consensus is formed.

But don’t forget: this representation is, by no means, a complete picture or even necessarily a correct picture. Indeed, Sir Francis Bacon himself, a man often considered to be the “Father of Scientific Method,” [3] may disapprove with the simplicity of this flowchart.

It is, however, as good a place to start as any: and hopefully sufficient to at least utter the sentiment, “Punch it Chewie.”

[1] If you happen to be part of this 5%, please refer to this link for more on Chewbacca.

[2] The Chewbacca Soundboard.

[3] Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was incredibly influential in highlighting the importance of “inductive reasoning” through the accumulation of data (also sometimes called the Baconian Method). he was also buddies with the British Monarchy, and there exists many a hypotheses that suggests he may have written some of the works of Shakespeare.

(3rd draft)