How do scientists work? A common view is that they spend their time testing hypotheses: selecting a good hypothesis to test, designing a study with the right control groups, arranging the stimuli and conditions, collecting and analyzing the data. Then, if everything works out, the results will support the hypothesis, giving statistically significant differences between experimental and control groups, and the experiment can be written up and published. This is an ideal case.
But it has one big problem: A lack of insights. In this scenario, the researcher hasn’t made any discoveries.
So where are the insights in the scientific process? Let’s look at the “scientific method.” There is no official definition of the scientific method, but I think most scientists would agree about the basic steps.
Step One. Select the question or phenomenon. Lots of opportunities for insight here as scientists try to pin down a question or phenomenon to investigate, revise it, often changing it as they make discoveries about what they think is really going on.
Step Two. Observe and gather data directly. Again, lots of opportunities for insights as the observations add more detail and add unexpected wrinkles that contradict beliefs and/or connect with beliefs in unexpected way. Careful observation often shakes scientists loose from their preconceptions.
Step Three. Interpretation. Build a story, theory or hypothesis. The struggle to make sense of the observations often results in insights. Here is where new theories emerge.
Step Four. Use data to evaluate the theory. If this step proceeds smoothly then no insights are generated. Scientists only formulate insights when the data do NOT conform with expectations, and don’t readily support the hypothesis. When that happens, researchers may be disappointed and frustrated, hoping that some error had crept into the analysis and that the data really do conform to the intended result. However, after further reflection, sometimes weeks or months later, the researcher may conclude that the phenomenon actually is more complex than originally imagined. Eventually, the researcher may be amused at how simplistic the original hypothesis was.
Step Five. Generalize. In stretching to apply the findings to new conditions and domains, scientists may acquire further insights.
Notice that the only place in the scientific method that fails to generate insights is the classical activity of testing a hypothesis and getting the desired results. The conventional view of research centers on the activity that is least likely to yield insights. And conventional views ignore the activities, particularly in the early stages of the scientific method, where insights are most likely to be found.
Thomas Kuhn’s contrast between normal science and revolutionary science seems consistent with these arguments. But Kuhn was describing the limitations of research that stays within conventional paradigms whereas the arguments presented above are dissecting the scientific process in order to identify where insights happen. And where they don’t.