The Nature of Scientific Investigation
Thomas J. Shuell
© 1997 by Thomas J. Shuell
"Science" often means different things to different people. Some regard science in very positive terms; others view its contributions as extremely limited, especially when it comes to the social sciences. Many psychologists think of science only in the limited sense of quantitative, experimental or correlational research. This conception is consistent with the logical-positivist approach to science that has dominated psychology for most of its history, but it fails to capture the essence of scientific investigation in a broader, more fundamental sense. An understanding of this broader meaning of science and scientific investigation is necessary to put research on human behavior into an appropriate context.
The word "science" comes from the Latin words "scientia" (knowledge) and "scire" (to know). Webster's unabridged dictionary (1979) defines science as:
Bronowski (1978) suggests that the basic purpose of science is "to describe the world in an orderly scheme or language which will help us look ahead....[and] as an aid to decision and action" (p. 69). There are several ways in which this goal of systematic description can be accomplished "scientifically," as suggested by Webster's definition in which observation and study are placed on a par with experimentation.
- knowledge, often as opposed to intuition, belief, etc.;...systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried out in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied;...the systematized knowledge of nature and the physical world. (p. 1622, emphasis in the original)
Astronomy and anthropology, for example, are two respected sciences that rely more on observation and study than on experimentation per se. Hypothesis testing, which can be thought of as a form of experimentation, plays an important role in these sciences, but it certainly does not involve experimental manipulation in the normal sense. The specific methods and procedures best suited for scientific investigation depend on the nature of the problem being investigated, and in most instances, different methods are most appropriate for studying different aspects of the problems facing a particular area of research such as human cognition.
Often there is a tendency for people to focus on the products of scientific investigation (i.e., the body of accumulated knowledge) rather than on the process of observation, study, and critical thinking that served to verify that knowledge. In the final analysis, it is the latter process of scientific thinking and investigation that is the hallmark of science. As Singer (1960) observes:
Thus, science is primarily a process (or set of procedures) for helping us verify the reliability of knowledge. For the most part, science is silent about how, where and why ideas originate; rather science is concerned with evaluating ideas once they have emerged. As Bronowski (1978) argues:
- [S]cience is the making of knowledge and is not knowledge as such. Science...has come to connote a process and not a static body of doctrine....[S]cientific articles (and especially textbooks) commonly give a false impression. They are composed to convince the reader of the truth of certain views or to put him in possession of certain knowledge. In doing this, such works normally obscure the process by which the views were reached." (pp. 114-115)
What, then, distinguishes scientific investigation from studies and discussions that are not scientific? Bronowski (1978) suggests that there are three core beliefs -- he calls them "creative ideas" (p. 12) -- that have been central to scientific thinking over the years. The first of these is the "idea" of order, that there is a systematic pattern to the universe and the creatures that inhabit it and that this orderliness is capable of being described and studied. Another belief is the idea of causation, that certain factors and events are responsible for the occurrence of other events or phenomena, although some social scientists feel that causal explanation is a misplaced endeavor in the human sciences. The third idea is the one of chance, that observations, and in some cases even the events themselves, may have occurred on the basis of chance and that relationships among factors and events can only be specified on a probabilistic basis.
- the scientific method [is] the method of all human enquiry, which differs...only in...that it is explicit and systematic. (p. 121)
Scientific knowledge and understanding is generalizable, capable of being replicated, and explicit. The latter characteristic derives from the fact that scientific findings and knowledge must be communicated to others so that they can confirm/disconfirm, debate, and reinterpret the original findings and theories. (See McCain and Segal  for an interesting analysis of the way in which Stalin's dictates on genetic theory, based on political rather than scientific considerations, had a disastrous effect on scientific investigation, international reputations, and medical practices.) As Bronowski (1978) observes:
Scientific investigation is not the static, rigid, and air-tight process it is often thought to be. Rather, it is an open process of trying to make sense of the world around and within us, a process in which data, observations, interpretations, and theories are debated in an open forum. In trying to discover and understand what, how, and why something happens:
- It is the explicit character of its laws which makes science a different activity [from everyday thinking]; and this character derives from communication. (p. 115)
Knowledge claims in science are defended by making the best case possible for that claim. This can be accomplished by:
- Scientists try to take the data in a given area and invent a general principle or set of principles with which these data are compatible. In other words, they attempt to develop a framework within which they can view events and data and understand them. (McCain & Segal, 1988, p. 52)
- Not only must an individual make up his own mind; he must also convince other scientists that his explanation is valid. (McCain & Segal, 1977, p. 60)
Weimer (1979) adds that:
- marshalling [sic] good arguments, relevant observations, solid experimental results, and so forth....But by what criteria are these things to be judged? On what grounds can it be decided that indeed the arguments are cogent, that the evidence is relevant, and that the results are solid? [T]he case can be made that these things are not clear-cut -- they are matters of professional judgment, and there can be disagreements. (Phillips, 1985, p. 51)
Good scientists are extremely wary of dogmatic claims, especially those that are partially hidden. They insist that the data or logic used to support a knowledge claim be exposed so that a reasonable chance exists for the claim to be refuted. Although scientists often have strong preferences for a particular methodology or theory, the better ones realize that their interpretations, conclusions, and theories are more likely to be valid if they are aware of the strengths and weakness of both the methodology being used in their investigations and the strengths and weakness of alternative approaches.
- Knowledge claims must be defended, to be sure; however the defense of such a claim is not an attempt to prove it, but rather the marshaling of "good reasons" in its behalf....The only way to defend fallible knowledge claims is by marshaling other fallible knowledge claims -- such as the best contingent theories that we possess. There are no "ultimate" sources of knowledge or epistemological authorities; everything is equally a potential "source" of knowledge, but none is the authoritative one. (p. 41, emphasis in the original)
Sound scientific investigation does not depend on a particular methodology, be it quantitative, qualitative, or something else. Rather it depends on the quality of the available data and their relevance to the research question being pursued, the logical thinking involved in interpreting those data, and the systematic way in which those data relate to other data and plausible theories concerning the issue being addressed. Scientific investigation is a never-ending search for the best understanding possible of the phenomena being studied, and such understanding, by necessity, draws from a variety of sources. Thus, several different research methodologies can contribute to the body of knowledge concerned with a scientific understanding of how and why people think and process various kinds of information.
Bronowski, J. (1978). The common sense of science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
McCain, G., & Segal, E. M. (1977). The game of science (3rd ed.). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
McCain, G., & Segal, E. M. (1988). The game of science (5th ed.). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Phillips, D. C. (1985). On what scientists know, and how they know it. In E. Eisner (Eds.), Learning and teaching the ways of knowing (The eighty-fourth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part II) (pp. 37-59). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Singer, C. (1960). Science. In W. Yust (Ed.), Encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. 20, pp. 114-124). Chicago: William Benton, Publisher.
Webster's new universal unabridged dictionary (2nd ed). (1979). . New York: Simon & Schuster.
Weimer, W. B. (1979). Notes on the methodology of scientific research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
© 1997 by Thomas J. Shuell