Process of science & the scientific method

We begin our first semester introductory biology course (Biology 1510 Introduction to Biological Principles) by having students read Platt’s 1964 article on Strong Inference. Mark Hay likes T. C. Chamberlin’s paper on the Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses even better. These two essays get at the essence of good science: coming up with multiple alternative hypotheses and devising ways to test them all, as efficiently and rigorously as possible. But they are somewhat dry reading, and I’m not sure how much students actually learn from them.
I think I found an article that vividly illustrates these principles for our students. Gary Taube’s article for The Crux, a Discover magazine blog, shreds the recent, highly publicized reports about the dangers of read meat consumption and the benefits of eating chocolate. He systematically shows how these observational studies do not qualify as sound science because they do not propose and test alternative hypotheses.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2012/04/05/chocolate-red-meat-can-be-bad-for-your-science-why-many-nutrition-studies-are-all-wrong

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/health/research/red-meat-linked-to-cancer-and-heart-disease.html

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/the-chocolate-diet

http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2012/03/red-meat-mortality-the-usual-bad-science/

Pan A, PhD, Sun Q, MD, ScD, Bernstein AM, MD, ScD, et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555-563. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287.

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About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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