Galaxies are big and far away. Two consequences of this are that you cannot rotate them and you cannot walk around them to look at them from a different angle. As part of my degree I did a literature review on a certain class of galaxies known as ‘BL Lacertae Objects’. These are highly luminous and scientists think this may be because they are spewing out a jet of radiation that aligns with our line of sight from Earth. This would mean that there are other galaxies out there that have these jets but that don’t appear to us as BL Lacertae Objects.
In my literature review, I looked into the possibility that BL Lacterae Objects and Fanaroff-Riley Type 1 galaxies are the same, with the latter being the parent population. Scientists try to address this question by counting the number of each, modelling the jets and seeing if this is consistent.
This is science but it is not an experiment. In my recent post on the use of science in education, I wrote about the kinds of experiments I am conducting as part of my PhD. But the scientific method is a disciplined form of inquiry and experiments are just one form that such an inquiry may take.
Pinning down exactly what the scientific method involves can be hard. Some would want to include the process of peer review. I would wish to stress that, in formulating a scientific hypothesis, scientists draw on prior knowledge and look for mechanisms that are plausible, consistent with that prior knowledge and no more complicated than they need to be. However, I would not include that in my definition.
Instead, I think that the core of the scientific method involves the testing of falsifiable hypotheses:
This idea of falsifiability is closely associated with the philosopher Karl Popper and it is the key way of differentiating between science and nonscience. It is particularly useful in providing warning signs while developing a new scientific theory. For instance, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has veered into the unfalisfiable with the concept of ‘germane’ load. I would argue that this issue has now been addressed but critics of CLT can justifiably point to it as a serious concern.
The field of education has a habit of generating unfalsifiable ideas. If I were to encourage teachers to ask one question of themselves and of others it would be, “How would we know if this idea was wrong?” If you can answer this question then you have a starting point for evaluating the evidence. If you can’t then we have something that is ‘not even wrong‘. At least disproved hypotheses serve the useful purpose of delineating truth and falsehood. Unfalsifiable assertions serve very little purpose at all and waste too much of our time.