As a parent to school age children I have found myself constantly intrigued by how much of my sons’ education is comprised of basic things that I’ve either forgotten or didn’t realize I’ve ever knew. In talking to people it would appear that I’m definitely not alone as most of us find simple concepts and helpful information fade as we age. One could argue that the things we learned that are worth remembering are the ones we have used and do in fact remember. Unfortunately I have found this to not be true when it comes to quite a bit of useful information, particularly in the world of science. Many of these things I have rediscovered in the last few years of health exploration and subsequently gained a new appreciation for.

One of the biggest concepts that I rediscovered was the scientific method. In researching health and nutrition you are bombarded with and often overwhelmed by scientific papers, studies and medical sounding jargon and complicated terminology. This is probably why many of us handed off our responsibility to the experts. It’s too difficult to keep a good handle on science, particularly when it gets detailed and/or complicated. The inherent problem with that is that if we forget too much of our basic science knowledge we are liable to make some uninformed decisions about what gets presented to us “science”, “research” and/or “evidence”.

That being said, let’s revisit a basic science concept that gets used everyday and is handy to be familiar with…

The Scientific Method

A body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.

General Concept
You ask a question, research what’s been studied before, form an educated guess, create an experiment to test your hypothesis, analyze the results, make a conclusion and often think about the next logical question. If done well, this can be (and should be) replicated by anyone to validate or deny your hypothesis and or/conclusion.

We do this in mild ways every day of our life as creatures of all kinds have been engaging in crude scientific method for most of time simply for survival. Much of our evolution as humans has been guided by simply “figuring the world out” which is in essence real world scientific method. We wonder about something, try/test something, get feedback/results, make conclusions and then modify our future questions and/or behaviors.

The early Egyptians and Babylonians have records of a basic version of the scientific method as early as 1600 B.C. and since then history is littered with records of thinkers, empirical men and scientists developing strategies to figure things out and find truths. Finally, a few centuries ago we took this general all purpose approach, distilled it down, gave it a name and laid it out more “scientifically”…

The Process
There are 6 steps to the basic scientific method:
1. Problem
– State the problem you’re looking to investigate, this frames your hypothesis and guides the research
2. Research
– Investigate what’s known about the problem you’re interested in.
3. Hypothesis
– State the expected outcome. Known as an educated guess, this must be testable to be a valid hypothesis.
4. Experiment
– Design a test to check the hypothesis for accuracy. Quite detailed, including materials and procedure (variables, controlled and independent, etc.)
5. Observations/Data
– Organize the collected data into a readable and useable format.
6. Conclusion
– Determine if the collected data support or deny your hypothesis. Describe why and offer limitations of current experiment and questions or statements of future research.

This process is structured to be able to test hypotheses. The important thing to keep in mind is that the scientific method never proves anything. All it does (and is designed to do) is lend support to or deny a hypothesis. If a hypothesis is supported once it is nothing more than interesting and is then required to be retested and challenged again. If time and time again it is not denied then it can become a theory which means the majority of evidence available leads us to believe it to be true although (like an assumption) we are aware the possibility always exists that new evidence can challenge or refute the theory. When a theory has gathered enough support over time it can be considered a law, although even this is not considered conclusive “proof” that something is true.

This is the beauty of the scientific method: it doesn’t claim to prove things. It exists to explore and test our questions and guide further research. In fact, many scientists believe the correct usage of the scientific method is to attempt to disprove hypotheses. If we try and try to disprove a conclusion and just can’t do it than we can start to feel that we might be on to something but we shouldn’t ever set out to prove our selves right. This is missing the point of the whole process.

What does nutrition science do? The opposite of true science. Research is conducted in ways that attempt to support their hypotheses. Although this may not seem like a problem on the surface it ends up undermining the entire scientific method process that exists to exclude bias and provide constraint and control to ensure valid examination of the question at hand. Unfortunately the science and research world has evolved to a point where funding is only available from organizations/companies that want people to prove something for them and notoriety only exists with big or novel findings. What better way to fall into a trend where you set experiments or analyses up to be favorable? Add in the fact that most nutrition research we hear about is correlative, basically meaning they ask people what they eat, measure their health in some way and see if they can support some groundbreaking new hypothesis. These type of inquiries are important and need to be done but as the very first things we use to start asking questions and developing hypotheses that can be tested with the scientific method. These research projects should not be written up and reported as proof of anything and shouldn’t be the basis of how we make decisions about health.

The lesson from all this grade school science talk?

Remember what science is and keep that in mind when you hear about the next scientific study telling you to not eat something, exercise a certain way or start taking a supplement. There is most certainly more to the story than what you are being told.

Thanks for reading, have a great day!