Natural Sciences Sources of Evidence and Methods

        Natural scientists include chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and a host of interdisciplinary specialists who combine methods from more than one of these core disciplines.  You can tell natural scientists because they always supply tables and charts and other kinds of raw data; and they pay scrupulous attention to the recency of the secondary sources they cite.  They usually use CBE (Council of Biology Editors) format, though some other formats also can be found.  When in doubt, ask the instructor or use the format used by your secondary scholarly journal sources.

        Natural sciences observe physical data using experimental methods to develop testable hypotheses to explain patterns or pattern breaking in the data.  They try to describe the natural world, to explain their composition and functioning, to explain their origins, and to determine what normal and observable deviant characteristics a given phenomenon may exhibit.  Experimental hypotheses have to be "falsifiable," that is, there have to be conditions under which they can be disproven.  They also usually have to result in the experimenter's increased ability to predict something about the phenomenon being studied.  Experiments that appear to confirm hypotheses must be "replicated" or reproduced by other researchers following the original experimenter's methods with the same quality materials.  Unless results are replicatable, they are not accepted by the scientific community.

        Two main sources of natural sciences evidence are field observations, which resemble social scientists' qualitative research, and laboratory experiments. Field observations look for data about how the experimental subject interacts with its context, and laboratory experiments are developed to test hypotheses generated either by field observations or by other experiments.  Reports of results must be carefully written in a specific format that allows for almost no "creativity" in organization.  For the natural scientist, creativity occurs in the study and experimental design stages of the process.  Reports have to be identically structured to make sure their evidence and methods are crystal clear to readers and easily comparable to the evidence and methods of those who attempt to replicate their results.

        For claims that attempt to explain behavior, researchers always use statistical tests to determine whether the rule-generating patterns in the observed data could have been the result of chance, or could have been the result of a skewed or too-small sample.  Chance rules outcomes which occur close to the law of averages (i.e., roughly 50% likelihood of either alternative if two outcomes are possible).  Skewed samples occur when the investigator accidentally includes a sample likely to produce an outcome for irrelevant reasons, like observing lions fighting with each other at a kill and trying to use that data to generate a hypothesis that explains all intra-species violence.  Too-small samples produce results which are likely to be affected by change and which usually do not represent the larger population, as when a single lion's violent behavior is used to generate a hypothesis about all lion violence, though "suggestive" results can support the call for further research with a larger and more varied sample.

        For this research project, do not attempt to do primary research yourself.  That is, do not attempt to do field observations or to design and carry out an experiment.  You do not have enough time, training, or experience to start from scratch.  You can, however, take advantage of what already has been done to produce very interesting results.  Look for published work on your topic and let your more experienced colleagues in the field tell you what they have had years to discover.  Once you have had the 200-level training in natural sciences for your major, you will be able to conduct your own primary research.