Scientific Thinking

In my recent newsletter article titled “A Course of Study in Analytical Thinking” I included “scientific thinking” as a specific type of thinking that we should understand and practice as data sensemakers. For this particular topic, I recommended the book A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Fourth Edition, by Stephen S. Carey as a useful introduction, but admitted that I had not yet read the book. I read others on the topic that didn’t suit the need and Carey’s book seemed to be the best bet based on the author’s description and the comments of several satisfied readers. Within a day or two of the article’s publication my copy of the book finally arrived and I’m relieved to say that it’s a perfect fit.

Beginners Guide to Scientific Method

It’s a short book of only 146 pages (including the index), but it covers the topic beautifully. It even includes quizzes and exercises for the dedicated learner. I especially appreciate its thoughtful focus on the essence of science and scientific method, never venturing into territory that non-scientists would find esoteric or intimidating. If you’re like me, you probably assumed that there were many good books of this type available, but this is surprisingly not the case. Given the importance of science and the fact that everyone should understand what it is and how it is essentially performed, this is a tragic void. Thankfully, Carey must have recognized this two decades ago when he wrote the first edition and has continued to serve the ongoing need by updating it every few years with current examples.

Carey breaks the content into six chapters:

  1. Science (This chapter defines science, describes the methods that are common across all branches of science, and argues for its importance.)
  2. Observation (This chapter describe the process of effective observation.)
  3. Explanation (This chapter focuses on the goal of explaining “why things happen as they do in the natural world,” including the special role of hypotheses and theories.)
  4. Experimentation (This chapter describes the role of experimentation, various types of experiments, and the ways experiments should be designed and conducted to produce reliable findings.)
  5. Establishing Causal Links (This chapter extends the topic of experimentation by addressing the special techniques, including statistics, that must be used to establish causation.)
  6. Fallacies in the Name of Science (This chapter draws a clear distinction between science and pseudo-science, including basic tests for distinguishing science from its imitation.)

Unless you’re already trained in the ways of science, you’ll find this book enlightening and enjoyable. It’s quite possible that you’ve already published a research paper in your field of study but somehow never learned what this little book teaches. I’ve read many research papers, especially in my field of information visualization, which had the appearance of science, with technical jargon and lots of statistics (often misapplied), but were in fact pseudo-science because the researchers and their professors did not understand the basic methods of science. So many time-consuming but ultimately worthless projects might have been salvaged had the researchers read this simple little book.

Take care,


P.S. When I wrote this blog post, I’d forgotten how horribly expensive this books is. It lists for almost $100. Even discounted, it will still cost you nearly $80. This is unconscionable. I doubt that it was the author’s decision to price it out of reach. I suspect that this is an example of Wadsworth Publishing’s shortsightedness. They see it as a textbook that only students will purchase – students who will have no choice in the matter. In fact, this book would have a broad audience if it were reasonably priced; so much so that the publisher and author would earn a great deal more money. What a shame! Until this changes, try to find yourself a used copy.

2 Comments on “Scientific Thinking”

By Pierre Mengal. October 4th, 2015 at 8:48 am

Here is a very inexpensive alternative (used):

This book contains famous articles by authors such as Meehl, Popper & Chamberlin. Some of them are freely available on the net:

I add this one to the list (not in the mentionned book):


By David. October 13th, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Looks like the third edition can be had for under $10. Hopefully the scientific method didn’t undergo too many changes between 2003 (3rd ed) and 2011 (4th ed).

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