The case for teaching Scientific Temper


As per this wikipedia article, Nehru was the first person to use the phrase “scientific temper”. The article says:

The Scientific temper is a way of life (defined in this context as an individual and social process of thinking and acting) which uses the scientific method and which may, consequently, include questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analysing, and communicating (not necessarily in that order). “Scientific temper” describes an attitude which involves the application of logic.

In other words, apply the ideas of scientific thinking (like observations, logging, testing, analysis etc.) to your life and take better decisions. For a layperson not accustomed to the working of science and its practitioners, this seems to be a good “life-hack”.

Recently, a fellow student’s experience, here at IISc, prompted me to think if there is a need to teach this idea to incoming research students at IISc.

The person in question is an experimentalist and while transferring samples into a furnace, accidentally mixed them up in a small proportion. What followed were tense moments which ended up frustrating this person to the extent that the samples were thrown into the trash.

Not unnatural, I guess. You worked for 2 months on measuring, cutting and collecting materials and just before you were to process them, you screw up. If this does not frustrate you even one bit, well, good for you.

A small group of us were discussing this problem when an alternate approach was suggested to this frustrated experimentalist in question. A senior PhD student suggested that the best approach would have been to simply go ahead with the wrong measurements and see what happens - could lead to a serendipitous discovery!

I suggested checking online for ways to somehow separate the wrongly mixed parts using some cleverly rigged-up procedure if possible. Another suggestion was to talk to seniors who may have faced such situations in the past for easy ways out.

But the bigger question is: Can this be taught? Incoming research students need to learn how to deal with such problems.

In the current setup, you learn the approach part from experience. You fail, you get frustrated, you look for solutions, discuss with peers, or maybe figure out on your own or with your advisor’s help and finally intuitively inculcate this habit.

Another way that this gets taught currently is subconsciously during lectures. While explaining concepts, many times a professor will invoke the idea of “arguments” and hark back to the earlier concepts resulting in the concept falling into place in a very streamlined fashion. When you are taught in this manner, I think you absorb this template and start applying it to your regular research problems.

But again, the problem is not everyone teaches in this manner. And so, I am in favour of attempting to teach this philosophy to incoming students and not heavily rely on experience to teach them. Not a full-semester course for sure, but perhaps devoting maybe 3 hours to this subject as a one-time lecture or panel discussion will help.

In fact, in an ideal program, I would love to have the first week before classes as a orientation session which will include talks on research methodologies, philosophies and the logistics of the research program. A session on using technology to manage your research is also a much needed one. The speakers need not be faculty, they could be senior PhD students and/or masters students.

Having said this, I must also add, I am pretty sure I will get a counter opinion somewhere in IISc that without the orientation also things will be fine just as they have been for all these years. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .