How Scientific Research is Conducted
How Scientific Research is Conducted
“Follow the science,” we so often hear. But what does that mean? A lot of people seem to be under the impression that following the science is like a straight line to the truth. “Don’t stray to the left or the right! Just follow the science and you be fine; you will find the answer.” But science doesn’t go in a straight line. Scientists don’t ask one question, do one test, find one answer, and then take the next step. The scientific method is best thought of as a cycle.
So, to follow science is complicated. There are lots of questions about lots of things in nature, and there are lots of hypotheses that can be formed to explain why things happen. Likewise, there are lots of experiments to test all those hypotheses, and last, there are lots of ways to interpret the results of experiments. Science is quite messy! To follow the science basically means to remain open to new information and not rush to conclusions.
Recalling that it takes a Catholic view of reality, a Catholic view of the universe, to understand science, let’s consider something everyone learns in high school – the Scientific Method. There are many forms of the Scientific Method, but they are basically the same process. Observe nature (which is Creation, the handiwork of God), ask questions, do research, make a hypothesis (a guess about why things happen the way they do), develop a way to test your hypothesis, test it, gather data, and analyze your data. Then it starts all over again. Observe. Question. Research. Hypothesize. Test. Analyze. And report.
We do this in everyday life all the time. If, for example, you want to make homemade pizza. You would observe (even taste) pizza and notice that you like it. Then you would probably look up recipes for making pizza dough and toppings. Then you might wonder about the kind of pizza dough you like, thin or thick, and find ways to make it the way you want. You might even combine what you learn from a few different recipes that you research. Then you do the experiment and cook it. You make the pizza. Maybe you make a few pizzas a few different ways. Then you test them all. Then you do your test; you eat the pizza. And you decide what you think and what you would do differently next time. The next time you make pizza, you tweak the recipe. If you spend years perfecting your pizza recipe, you will test many nuances of the recipe until you have it exactly right. Science is like this.
When I worked in a research lab for DuPont to make better formulations of Lycra® spandex, it was a lot like perfecting a recipe. Based on feedback from the market, we tested new recipes for making the stretchy fibers. One of my projects was to make Lycra® spandex that was compatible in t-shirts. It needed to withstand the heat of dying and setting the fabric, and it needed to be durable through many washings. We had a spreadsheet of successively varied recipes that we tested in the lab and then in a small pilot plant. We subjected all the fibers to heat and repeated stretching, and we measured elongation, tenacity, and consistency of denier (thickness of the fiber). There was a time I could walk through the shopping mall and tell by the hang tags on t-shirts what the chemical formulation for the Lycra® probably was.
This method is the same even in pure science, science for the sake of knowledge. This is how we know which atoms bond with other atoms, how scientists discovered quantum mechanics, how we learned about cellular processes in living things, how we understand Creation. We study it.
So remember: that is fundamentally how science is done. The Scientific Method is very Catholic. We observe the handiwork of God, and we try to learn more about God by studying how He makes things work.