“Doing science” for me often involves running controlled experiments with an eye on what the study should tell us. We have a hypothesis, we set out to answer specific questions, and we have an idea of what the answers will be and how we’ll proceed if we get one answer or another. But even the most rigorously controlled study doesn’t always answer the question that we originally asked. Or it gives us more than we asked for – or wanted.
“Doing science” means looking at the data closely, observing the numbers and comparing them against the different variables in the experiment. It involves looking for patterns and unexpected results. It means not automatically dismissing data points that don’t fit the pattern as outliers; sometimes the most interesting phenomena are contained in those points. When you do science it is important to understand – and be willing to accept – that the path you set out on might deliver you to a completely unexpected destination.
Expect the unexpected. Be flexible. Be willing to admit that initial impressions were wrong. Take a deep breath when plans have to be redeveloped (plans that took forever to draft and underwent the Sisyphean task of review-rewrite-review and finally – approval!). Steady yourself when you have to deliver the news that important deadlines might have to be pushed back. It’s all part of doing science.
When people express a distrust of science or the scientific method, it’s because they have put science on a pedestal – they expected or demanded that it be unwavering, infallible. And when it fails to live up to their expectations, they cast it aside as useless or faulty. But these perceived faults are the strengths of science. The ability to recover from the setbacks, adapt to new circumstances, and then continue forward with more correct information – this is at the heart of what makes science such a perfect tool to understand our ever-changing world. When science sits still or becomes predictable, it’s because we have stopped doing science correctly.