Communicating science

2017.11.07

What is science?

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge - Carl Sagan

People often think that science is just a collection of facts, possibly because this is how the subject is taught in schools1. As a young student, I had to memorize things like the parts of cells or flowers and didn’t fully appreciate the process of science until my PhD studies. 

This situation is unfortunate, because science is so much more than just facts. It is a way of thinking and it is exciting. Really! 

parts of the cell

At one time, you probably learned the parts of an animal cell. But science is much more than this.

Science is a way of asking questions about the natural world that can be answered through observations or experiences that can be replicated

Underneath the umbrella of science are natural sciences, like physics, chemistry, and biology and social sciences, like economics.

Science can be used to answer questions like: How does pesticide runoff from cropland affect insect communities in nearby streams? How does gut bacteria affect human behavior? Does extending unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for work? What are human health consequences of nuclear weapons?

Science is not useful for moral or aesthetic judgments and cannot answer questions like: What should I name the cat? What is the meaning of life? What is the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies? 

Science is an iterative, ongoing process

The scientific method is an iterative process to gather new knowledge and refine (or revise), and integrate existing knowledge. 

The Scientific Method

scientific method

I will illustrate the scientific method using an example that I took from an actual published article. If you have a dog like I do, you might appreciate this. 

Like all animals, dogs poop and pee. But why do they sometimes spin around before they do their business? 

Let's apply the scientific method:

Make observations

Several mammal species have been observed to align their bodies with respect to the earth’s magnetic field while exhibiting certain behaviors. Sometimes dogs spin around in circles before relieving themselves.

Ask an interesting question

Does dog spinning behavior prior to relieving itself have something to do with the earth’s magnetic field?

Formulate hypothesis (a tentative answer to the question posed)

Dogs spin around to align themselves with the earth’s magnetic field before they relieve themselves.

Develop testable predictions

If the hypothesis is true, dogs will align themselves north-south with the earth’s magnetic field when relieving themselves.

Design test

Measure the direction the dog is facing when relieving him/herself. Repeat the test for different dogs (and breeds and sexes).

Gather data

The researchers collected ~7 500 observations from 70 dogs from 37 breeds over two years. When the earth’s magnetic field was stable (only part of the daylight period), dogs preferred to align themselves north-south and avoided east-west.

 

dog

We learn something, even when predictions are not supported by data

In this study, the hypothesis was only partially supported by the experimental results. While the evidence suggests that dogs do align themselves with the earth’s magnetic field while relieving their bowels and bladder, this behavior was only found under certain conditions – when the magnetic field was calm (this relates to the deviation between true north and magnetic north and it changes throughout the day).

On the surface, this may seem like a frivolous subject to study, but it contributes to the body of scientific knowledge with new findings: 1) dogs can sense the earth’s magnetic field - this had never been tested before; 2) the condition of the magnetic field affected the dogs’ behavior. 

This study does not answer the question of how dogs sense the magnetic field or why they align themselves with it. But, the study could help to explain the homing abilities of dogs and their relatives, such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes and opens the door to future research. 

The scientists are still collecting data and if you would like to participate as a citizen scientist, check out this link.

Interestingly, this study also has implications for other researchers. Past studies of animals' abilities to sense the earth’s magnetic field were not replicable or the results showed no clear behavioral pattern. The scientists in this study believed their findings could explain why – because the condition of the magnetic field affects the behavior and, therefore, should be taken into account when analyzing results.  

Because science is a process, the accumulated body of knowledge is constantly revised and modified as new evidence is gathered. New evidence can reveal problems with our current understanding and may lead to modifications or even to the rejection of the current understanding in favor of a new, improved understanding. 

Even though science is ongoing, it offers the best explanations today about the world.

 

Notes and further reading:

1Research has found that middle-school students exposed to the story behind the science - the scientist’s process of discovery - showed greater understanding and retention of the subject compared to students who received traditional science education materials. 

Understanding Science 101

The Stories Behind the Science

Michelle McCrackin

Michelle McCrackin

Limnologist
michelle.mccrackin@su.se