- Pauline Hoffmann
The Scientific Method. Let me explain.
Where in the heck am I going with this newsletter now? The Scientific Method? Are we in science class? Will you have to write a lab report?
No. Well, you don't have to but you may. I won't stop you from writing.
I want to talk about the scientific method because I think people have a skewed view of what science is. I talk to people and they seem to think that once scientists have done an experiment and they have their findings, it's done. Finished. Conclusion reached. Nothing more needs to be said.
Sometimes. Perhaps. Maybe.
When we became aware of Covid there were so many unanswered questions. Scientists knew much but were still figuring things out like how long does the virus survive outside the body? Does it survive on our hard surfaces like the kitchen counter? What are the long-term effects of the virus? At least the last question we are still trying to figure out because it seems to vary so widely from person to person. We know much but not everything.
I think that gives people pause. "If scientists don't know or if they keep 'changing their minds' what does that mean for the rest of us?"
It means we need to understand science and how it works. Allow me to list the steps in the scientific method which is followed by every scientist (generally, I don't like to use such inclusive words as "every" or "all" but in this case I think every and all scientists use the scientific method).
Have a question.
Research that question
Form an hypothesis
Draw conclusions (and share)
Let's break those down. You have to have a question to start. How is Covid transmitted? How does disinformation start? Why do people believe everything they see online? Then you can start to do some secondary research which is - what's already out there that might help you with your question? Have others tried to answer your question? If they haven't answered the question, have they done something that might help you advance information on the topic?
Then you need to form an hypothesis which is a best guess. For example, I am interested in disinformation. How does it start? After doing my due diligence, I have gathered quite a bit of background information and I feel confident that I may say: Disinformation starts in the absence of information. I then need to conduct an experiment or experiments to determine if that is true or not - and, one hopes, to find the answer if my hypothesis is incorrect.
Experiments may be conducted in a number of ways and I don't need to go into them in detail in this issue. Given my disinformation example, I can quickly note that I might conduct social listening, I might do a content analysis of online content, I might conduct a survey.
Once I've done my experiment(s), I need to analyze my data, form conclusions and then share my findings. When analyzing data it is important to remove as many of your own biases as possible. I would argue you will never remove all biases from anything but you must do your best. Why do I say this? I've worked with companies who explain away findings to suit themselves and they use data to justify it. Data don't lie; people may lie when interpreting it - and not necessarily intentionally. For example, I might find that disinformation starts because there is a large evil Satanic cult that is trying to take over the world one Tweet at at time (this could be true - I've not conducted experiments). I don't want this to be true because we are all doomed against Satan so I try to explain my findings by saying that it is really just a bunch of fraternity boys in their basement playing games. I'm not looking at my data objectively and I am stereotyping fraternity boys.
Sometimes it helps to have an outside pair of eyes look at your data - someone who doesn't have a horse in the race, so to speak. I often look at data for people. I look at the data and before I offer my feedback I always ask them what they see. Sometimes I agree; sometimes I don't. It is always interesting to me how people who have some skin the game interpret data to suit their own needs. Most of the time it's in justifying why the data present as they do. People want an explanation and something to blame if the results aren't roses and sunshine. The latest scapegoat? Covid. Oh, we got those results that everyone hates our company because of Covid. Um, I'm looking at the data and see that everyone thinks the CEO is a douchebag. I don't think that's Covid.
Sharing of your findings might be the most important part of the scientific method. Why? Remember our first two steps? Ask a question and do some secondary research? Your findings become secondary research for the next researcher. If you conduct your experiment and then squirrel away your findings, you deprive science of your insights. That could set things back. Science and research should be a collaborative endeavor.
Science is an evolution (science also studies evolution, but I digress). We learn from one another. The next researcher may take my findings of the Satanic cult overtaking the world and do additional research and find that it isn't a bunch of fraternity boys but a well-organized disinformation machine from XYZ country intent on sowing confusion and chaos.
Communication is also key in all of this (said the communication professor). It is important that it be communicated that this is one step and it's what we know right now. We reserve the right to modify our findings based on new information. New information may always come along! Let's go back to Covid. We knew early on that the virus was transmitted in the air. We urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. Once vaccines were available, we encouraged everyone who could safely get vaccinated to get vaccinated. Are there side effects with vaccines? There could be. There are side effects with most drugs/vaccines. I don't think it was communicated well enough that the vaccine doesn't mean you won't get Covid (I did get it having been vaccinated and boosted), it just means you won't suffer the same effects as if you hadn't been vaccinated. We know much about Covid but still don't know everything.
We also need to take a look at our global response to Covid because more pandemics are coming (not an exaggeration or an "end of the world" statement). What can and would we do differently the next time? (Do you see how this becomes a loop? We go back to the start and continue to ask questions, do the research, form hypotheses, experiment, analyze, and conclude. Rinse and repeat.)
I think Covid uncovered and highlighted for us a lack of science and health literacy. That lack of information has sown the seeds of disinformation around Covid, vaccines, health care, science.....I could go on.
I hope with this newsletter to help dispel some of that. Look for more information about my upcoming Lunch and Learn on Tuesday, September 27 at noon EST. I am calling it my Disinformation Clinic. I hope you join me.