Science is supposed to rest on scrupulously careful observation, on the rigorous scrutiny of material as it really is and events as they actually happen. Preconceived ideas have no place in the laboratory, where contrasting with politics, the arts and many other human activities the touchstone is original observation rather than either doctrine or subjectivity.
For those who believe in this perfectionist view of research, one of the papers given last week at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Guildford will have come as a rude shock. The product of an intriguing investigation by sociologist Ronald Stansfield from the City University, London, the paper suggested that many trainee scientists already suffer from a trained incapacity, in which theoretical, learned attitudes dominate and even eclipse national talents for original observation.
Stansfield's research was simplicity itself. He asked seventy-five university science students to"look at a tap slowly dripping water into a bowl" and "write a description of what you see as you watch the water coming out of the tap and joining the water in the bowl below." Those were virtually the only instructions provided. Asked for further guidance, Mr Stansfield avoided giving any more detailed suggestions, and even restrained discussion as far as possible The first surprise, when the results came in, was that about half of the students produced imaginative, rather than factual, accounts of the dripping tap. One example included thoughts about Chinese water torture, which had passed through the writer's mind as he watched his tap dripping.
More disturbing, however, were several of the answers provided by students who genuinely set out to write objective accounts. Many contained material which could not possibly have been gained by simple observation. Typical was the statement that: -the droplet, assumes a spherical shape, surface tension forces providing an elastic bag, to contain the water as it falls." It is, in fact, impossible simply by watching water dripping, to see that the droplets are spherical. The
concepts of surface tension and of an elastic bag surrounding a droplet must also have come from text-book physics, rather than patient tap-watching. This is explanation, not description. Worse was to come. When Stansfield asked a group of thirteen students how many of them, since 0 level at school, had written a description of what they had observed in the laboratory, in contrast to writing down what some authority told them they ought to see, not one claimed to have done so. His conclusion is sad but plausible: "the initial grounding in science which people receive today conditions them to report what from teacher and textbook they have learned to be right and proper, and inhibits them from direct observation and description."
I remember being tutored in these ways myself as a science student. The approach is typified by what is called "gravimetric analysis" in chemistry when, after a series of intricate manouevres, one has to weigh a vanishingly small amount of solid matter and produce an answer correct to several decimal places. Marks are given accordingly. The whole procedure is a charade. For those few in the class who will go on to do research, such a technique can be learned and perfected if necessary later. For the vast majority who won't, it is a tiresome chore, likely to induce at least some fiddling with the results.
Stansfield's off-beat study suggests that nothing has changed. The right answer still counts for more than patient observation.