The Scientific Method In Everyday Life

On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek

 

The Scientific Method In Everyday Life

 

There may be a lot of truth in the idea that we all forget about 80% of what we learned in school.  Most of us, however; are satisfied that what we have retained continues to serve us in daily life and in very useful ways. Knowing how to count and apply simple math is so fundamental that we may not appreciate how vexing life would be if we didn’t learn those basic skills and use them regularly.  Imagine how helpless we would feel if we just plain forgot how to count and how to assess groupings that demand numerical values as descriptors. 

 

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In your opinion, are there more than a thousand sheep?  Less than a thousand?  To whom does it matter?

 

There are other things in daily life that cry out for description in terms that are definitive enough to require ranges that delimit the choices of what is possible, what is plausible, and what is actual. The gradations from possible, plausible, and actual; however, are not so obvious. By using a systematic approach to evaluation, it helps us to identify boundaries between what is vaguely possible, up through somewhat plausible, and finally settling on what is actually and factually the case.  Such is one aspect of a primer description of the scientific method.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know about and use the scientific method, but you have to have a scientist’s insistence on acknowledging the evidence that you see and then to put a putative value on what you have seen.  In the scientific method, you simply cannot ignore the facts and blindly choose to embrace an opinion about what you have seen as the basis of your judgment about an issue.  

In the scientific method, one of the fundamental precepts and requirement is the hypothesis. When we look at a situation that we wish to understand, the first step is to state a hypothesis about what we presume about that situation.  For example, we might observe a withered tree that shows no signs of life and form the hypothesis that the tree is dead. A counter-hypothesis (a null hypothesis) would state, despite the superficial visual evidence, the tree is not dead. In the scientific method, one gathers the evidence and proceeds to test the null hypothesis about the tree not being dead. If there are any signs of life, the observer must conclude that the null hypothesis is valid and that the tree is not dead.

If a friend poses for a photo before the stark corpse of bleached and broken branches and the naked trunk of the Bristlecone pine tree (Pinus arisita) known as the Methuselah Tree, high in the White Mountains of California, most people would assume that it was dead.  That withered skeleton of dried out wood still shows some signs of life, even two thousand years after it began growing there.  Hence, the name the Methuselah Tree, given for the evidence of a few green needles located along one or two strands of its gnarled branches.

 

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The Methuselah Tree is over 2,000 years old

 

To that extent, using the scientific method to uphold the null hypothesis is more problematical because it requires an explanation and elucidation of the evidence. In the eyes of those who would choose the hypothesis that the tree is dead merely because there are no obvious signs of life, the explanation is usually stated, and usually without justifiable proof. Furthermore, it is far easier to pronounce your opinion and gets others to accept it if you convince them that the tree shows no signs of life, so it must be dead.  Indeed, visual evidence may be compelling, but we should be aware that not all evidence should be judged as valid. Just because a seemingly dead tree has been witnessed by thousands of people, does not mean that it is dead. In everyday science, even the evidence should be challenged.

If solid and verifiable evidence proves that the tree is not dead, any person using the scientific method properly should stand against what passes as popular opinion.

There is perhaps nothing more contentious in the everyday life of adults who are discussing politics than persistent, opposing viewpoints. Most of those views are based on opinions and not on actual facts. Final decisions regarding a candidate or political policies may weigh heavily on personal opinions, but there are real facts that should go along with those opinions. Alas, in the case of discussing politics, opinions always seem to trump facts—every time.

One memorable and enduring cliché that stands out as it relates to politics or anything else subject to debate: “you are welcome to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.”  Facts should stand alone and stand apart.  The soundness of that wisdom, on the other hand, never seems to survive very long in a discussion about politics, as the prime example. We should include facts in our decision-making process, but by the millions, voters overlook the scientific method and choose to make their decisions most often based on unsupported opinions.

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