How Do Scientists Think?

researcherWhen I was in school we learned—or thought we learned—how scientists worked. Scientists, we were told, followed the 5-step scientific method. First they came up with a question, then they designed an experiment, collected data, and drew conclusions to answer the question. I can easily envision my scientist friends shaking their heads and saying, “If only it were that easy.”

And the truth is, some of the images we provide of scientific thinking are even more damaging than that. I’ve written before of my ill-fated trip to a children’s bookstore looking for science books for young people that did not explain in advance just how all the “experiments” were going to turn out, so students could think like real scientists. The college-educated clerk I asked for help assured me that I did not need to worry about the answers being in the books—after all, real scientists (he declared) already knew the answers. They just did experiments to prove them. Needless to say, I got no help. And I wanted to ask what that young man’s teachers did to give him such a vision of science—flat, predictable, and predetermined. It bears no resemblance at all to the messy meanderings that are real science.

Reflecting on this made me think about some interesting work by Kevin Dunbar, research he described as investigating “on-line creativity” by observing prominent research scientists and their teams at work. The processes he described were anything but neat and tidy—groups of researchers working to understand, communicate, and combine ideas.

researcherstalkingIn the early analyses, Dunbar pointed out three key attributes of creative scientific thought: the use of analogies, attention to unexplained findings, and shared reasoning. New insights did not occur alone.

In a later interview, he described the processes. Mistakes and confusion were center stage.

“The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense….

These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

So how to we help the realities of scientific creative thought become more than a dirty secret? One way would be to allow students to experience a bit of it while in school. Consider some of the following.

After a science demonstration or lab, have students describe what happened by comparing it to something else. The analogies need not be self-conscientiously “creative” or far out—those of the scientists were not. The goal is to communicate clearly what happened by comparing it to something known.

When a demonstration or lab produces unexpected or conflicting results, view as a prime opportunity to experience science. Have students work together to try to explain the unexpected—that is what scientists do. Be excited rather than aggravated. This is the good stuff!

Have students work together to design and conduct observations, comparisons, and experiments—the more diverse the interests and strengths of the groups, the more potential. Groups of scientists from different disciplines and perspectives were more productive than those with similar backgrounds. Encourage students to value intellectual diversity and to share ideas to come up with insights none of them could generate alone.

And in all of these, make sure students know why you are doing it. Talk about the way science works. When labs are not what you expected, rather than lecturing students on their failure to follow directions, explain that this is their chance to experience real science at work.

Perhaps as more students understand the communal, problem solving, and unpredictable nature of science, more of our creative young people will seek careers in scientific fields. It may be far more of an adventure than they envisioned. I suspect so.



Dunbar, K. (1997). How scientists think: Online creativity and conceptual change in scienc. In T.B. Ward, S.M. Smith & J. Vaid (Eds.) Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes, (pp. 461-493). Washington D.C: American Psychological Association Press

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