1.Ask the right question
The best science doesn’t always start in the lab with an experiment. Finding the right question to ask and formulating it in the most effective way can make all the difference between an experiment that goes well and one that goes badly. A good scientific question can be answered by observation or experiment. Importantly, the question should not be subjective or based upon personal values or opinions – that is, it should be a question about a matter of fact not a matter of opinion.
To give a simple example, ‘What is the energy density of Marmite in kCal per 100g?’ is a good scientific question, as it is a matter of fact. In contrast, ‘Is Marmite nicer than peanut butter?’ is not a good scientific question, because taste is a matter of subjective opinion.
Scientific questions are specific and will produce results that are measurable or quantifiable.
2.Make systematic observations
How often do you really take the time to study something? Looking at what is happening around us or observing how something behaves is a vital step in developing scientific thinking. It converts curiosity to knowledge. Learning to look and to study without drawing conclusions prematurely is an essential step in scientific methodology and thinking. This doesn’t have to be in a laboratory. You can apply this in your daily life.
In any situation, taking time to observe what is happening can often lead to a quicker, more efficient solution to a problem, whether it is a scientific inquiry in a laboratory or a problem with a leak in the roof.
3.Decide on a good research method
It doesn’t matter how much information you collect if it is the wrong information. Planning is the key to successful outcomes. Make sure your method is going to produce results that will answer the question you are interested in. Critically analyse whether the data you plan to collect will effectively enable you to investigate the question of interest.
This is true beyond practical science – thinking about the aim of an activity before embarking on it enables you to critically assess whether the actions you have planned are going to provide value and progress that aim. A little bit of time spent planning can save you a lot of time later.
4.Always assess risk
Risk assessment is a part of scientific thinking and should be dynamic and ongoing throughout an activity. It involves identifying hazards (something that may injure or harm you) and assessing the overall risk for a situation (the likelihood of any individual hazard injuring or harming you).
A key part of scientific planning is to put control measures in place to reduce and manage the risk from any hazards identified. Risk assessment isn’t a single act of recording these on a form, instead, it is something that is always present in scientific thinking and enables us to both predict potential hazards and actively respond to hazards that may not have been apparent initially.
Remember also that if you are doing research on other people (e.g. in psychology) you also have to consider any risks that you might be exposing them to, and make sure that participating in your research doesn’t cause them harm.
5.Be smart and critical about drawing conclusions
Drawing conclusions from data means moving from observation (studying and recording without interpretation) to inference (drawing a conclusion based on reasoned consideration of evidence). It is important to be alert to any biases that may affect the conclusion you are drawing.
Most importantly, remember that correlation (an association between two variables) does not necessarily equal causation (i.e. that one is responsible for the effect seen in the other). Even when your ‘gut’ tells you that there must be a correlation between two variables and that a linkage is, therefore, real, you need to think about how you could gather further evidence to demonstrate this.
This kind of critical approach is valuable outside of the field of science – next time you watch a news broadcast or read a news story, keep it in mind!