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Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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4 How contemporary science works

This discussion of contemporary science will now expand by exploring some of the key aspects of how science works. This will include some discussion about the different approaches scientists take when they research, and how they assess and communicate the products from research. You will develop your appreciation of key areas of scientific knowledge and of the limits of such knowledge, and learn about some of the wider implications of scientific investigation.

From your experience of completing Activity 3, where you compared the perspectives of four scientists, you should already be able to see that scientists work in diverse areas, producing new knowledge that is subject to evaluation by colleagues and peers. In essence, this is how scientists work and the sciences progress, regardless of the academic discipline in question. This section will explore these issues in more detail.

Activity 4 Trust in science

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch the first five minutes of Video 3: ‘Sir Paul Nurse: Trust in Science [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ (open the link in a separate window so you can easily return to this page). Sir Paul is Chief Executive and Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, and former President of the Royal Society. As you watch the video, make some notes below on what he says concerning the way science is performed, evidenced and developed. You may want to play the section through a couple of times to familiarise yourself with his views on important issues in science.

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You can find many other interviews online where Sir Paul discusses these topics. Elsewhere, he has talked more expansively about how science works, discussing inductive and deductive approaches:

  • Inductive approaches: put simply, an inductive approach is where we collect evidence, and then generate theories from it. Inductive approaches tend to be exploratory in nature. They are often adopted when scientists are looking to explore a new field of enquiry or phenomenon.
  • Deductive approaches: if we adopt a deductive approach, we would start with a theory, develop a hypothesis, and then ‘test’ that hypothesis against a set of evidence. The test either proves or disproves the hypothesis and the original theory is adapted (or not) accordingly.

These two approaches to studying science are often conflated around the idea of a ‘scientific method’. The scientific method is an idea, or set of ideas, which has been around for centuries. It describes the process by which scientific ideas are formalised into research questions for further investigation. Put simply, this involves four stages:

  • observation
  • development of hypothesis or research question
  • investigation
  • interpretation

Crucially, the more data you collect, the more confident you can be in your results and your interpretations.

At first glance, the scientific method is a linear process going from observation to the formation of research questions to investigation to interpretation. But in practice, the way science is carried out is iterative: observation leads to the formation of research questions and investigation, but part of the subsequent interpretation is identifying new questions or refining the original research question.

Activity 3 showed that there are different ways that different scientific disciplines interpret the same basic set of principles. Further, it is important to note that not all sciences rely on empirical observation to advance their ideas. Some theoretical areas develop through the exploration or creation of theoretical models, or exploring logical or theoretical inconsistencies in existing ideas or theories. Ultimately though, for these theoretical ideas to be validated, they must be supported by empirical observation.

In another instance, Sir Paul Nurse offers some advice to journalists:

I think the important thing for a journalist looking at this is not to be naive. What they should do is look at the funding, look at the type of the research, look at what conflicts of interest there may be, and don’t simply have a sort of tick-box approach, ‘If it’s funded commercially, therefore we should be deeply suspicious’, because often that research is of the highest quality and it has been tested in the very highest standards, and don’t think that because it’s funded by an NGO, it’s got to be whiter than white, because it may not be, and don’t necessarily think just because it’s funded by the government, it’s completely without any value-driven stuff as well. Just don’t be naive.

BBC (2015)

Why is this so important, and how are findings from how science works shared with other scientists and wider society? These ideas are considered further in the next section.