The Nature of Science, According to a Scientist
20th century physicist Richard Feynman described the nature of science this way:
“What is the fundamental hypothesis of science, the fundamental philosophy? …the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment. If it turns out that most experiments work out the same in Quito as they do in Stockholm, then those “most experiments” will be used to formulate some general law, and those experiments which do not come out the same we will say were a result of the environment near Stockholm. We will invent some way to summarize the results of the experiment, and we do not have to be told ahead of time what this way will look like. If we are told that the same experiment will always produce the same result, that is all very well, but if when we try it, it does not, then it does not. We just have to take what we see, and then formulate all the rest of our ideas in terms of our actual experience.”
(The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume I, Chapter 2: Basic Physics, Section 2-3 “Quantum Physics”, http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/I_02.html )
Science builds up knowledge by continually contrasting ideas and experiments—as Feynman says, we have to take what we see and strive to let experience shape our ideas.
You don’t need to be a world-class physicist like Feynman or have an obscure field of study to be a scientist. The project teams I’m coaching this month and I both have the opportunity right now to work as scientists to understand and change work systems, with the aim to improve performance. We’ll use the Model for Improvement, three questions and the Plan-Do-Study-Act test cycle as our guide.
1. The Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle is often described in terms of the scientific method.
- “The PDSA cycle is shorthand for testing a change - by planning it, trying it, observing the results, and acting on what is learned. This is the scientific method used for action-oriented learning.” ( “Testing for Improvement” by the Health Resources Services Administration, http://www.hrsa.gov/quality/toolbox/methodology/testingforimprovement/part2.html)
- “…the PDSA cycle presents a pragmatic scientific method for testing changes in complex systems. The four stages mirror the scientific experimental method of formulating a hypothesis, collecting data to test this hypothesis, analysing and interpreting the results and making inferences to iterate the hypothesis” ( M.J. Taylor et al. (2013) “Systematic review of the application of the plan–do–study–act method to improve quality in healthcare”, BMJ Quality and Safety, 1 April 2014 vol. 23 no. 4, 290-298 http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2013/09/11/bmjqs-2013-001862.full.pdf%2Bhtml%20).
John Hunter connects PDSA to Richard Feynman in this blog post: http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2012/05/17/richard-feynman-explains-the-pdsa-cycle/
John’s post has the added benefit of a 62 second video of Dr Feynman sketching essential steps in science: Guess--Compute Consequences--Compare to Experience. Feynman emphasizes that appeals to authority or elegance of ideas do not count in science, only what Nature presents and we observe.
2. Six non-technical chapters of the Feynman Lectures, including Volume 1’s Chapter 2: Basic Physics are reprinted in Six Easy Pieces (2011), Perseus Books: New York. I picked up a copy of Six Easy Pieces in a used book store last week; reading it provoked this blog post.