Scientific Thinking LO21952

Leo Minnigh (
Mon, 21 Jun 1999 17:46:36 +0200 (MET DST)

Replying to LO21936 --

Replying to LO21936 and many others

Dear organised learners, thinkers and teachers,

Recent messages on this gem-rich site turned my head towards stage 1 of
scientific thinking: observation.

First some quotes:

LO21912 (Catalysis - At de Lange):
"Now, near the end of the twentieth century, descriptive biology has
almost become an extinct art, eventhough much more descriptive work is
absolutely needed. "

LO 21923 (Scientific thinking - John Gunkler):
"We 're gathering "interesting" observations (like the amazingly detailed
records of planetary motions kept by Tycho Brahe that, later, formed the
basis of Copernicus' revolutionary theory), not creating explanatory

LO 21931 (Scientific thinking - Winfried Dressler):
"The value of an observation as a gem is given by its power to generate

LO21936 (Scientific thinking - At de Lange):
"The same goes with gem stones as some of my friends in succulent plants
have shown
me. (Funny, many collectors of succulents are also collectors of gems!) I
am sure Leo can confirm it with wonderful stories and examples."

LO21927 (democratization of the *word* - Sendil ~zen~Nathan):
"NIH proposal is supposedly a 2 stage process. Firstly, everything but the
'atrocious' will be published prior to any review. I do have serious
trouble there, since the aesthetization of 'atrocious' is a
superior/editorial/capitalist/intelllectual peer-review process in itself.
Then comes the real review, whatever that is !"

..... and many others .......

I once (can't remember in which contribution) spend some words on the
differences between e.g. "biography" and "biology"; we now could add maybe
too something like: "biovalidity".
It is the difference between (1) observation, (2) speculation and (3)

And it is very true that less and less descriptive thinking appears in
scientific journals. It is also often very difficult, if not impossible,
to distiguish between what is description and what is speculation. We do
not find this only in biology, but in nearly every science. I know from my
field of geology, that descriptive papers are hardly seen in modern
literature. That's why scientific papers from before - say - 1940 are
still of so much value. That's why diaries of travellers of the past are
such interesting literature.

This lack of descriptive science has probably to do with modern policies
of editorial boards of scientific journals. They don't like descriptive
articles. They filter these manuscripts thinking that observations are too
specific, not interesting for the general readers. That is one of the most
serious critics one could give to the role of modern editorial boards. (As
a matter of fact, in our library we are thinking in the same lines as
Sendil proposed in his contribution).

We do see also other tendencies in sciences. Not only that no descriptive
papers appear in the journals, also the scientists themselves, like to
jump over stage (1) and immediately go to the speculation of stage (2).
In modern astronomy, a lot of observations of stellar constillations are
nowadays executed by amateurs. A worldwide network of amateurs are doing
the monk-work. Luckily the professionals have recognised the validity of
this work, and they make gladfully use of their observations. An intense
alliance has been grown from the amateur-professional relationship in
As At sketched the picture of biology (hardly, or badly developed
observations), is also true for geology. Most geologists have a desk job.
They hardly go into the field to make direct observations. But luckily,
there are now a lot of amateur mineral and fossil hunters. And they have
developed sometimes an incredible level of knowledge to make very good
observations. I like the amateur journals in my field much better than the
modern Elsevier-monopolised professional journals.
And At, as succulent collectors are often gem collectors, it is also true
that most fieldgeologists (a rare species now) have a good knowledge of
vegetation and other forms of life; during my own fieldwork, I made
extensively use of vegetational information to map the hidden rocks in the

There are luckily nice examples of the 'right' order of scientific
thinking. I think for instance of Darwin. The uncountable observations he
has done (and described!; his complete works occupy a complete book
shelve), before he was thinking of clues for evolution of life, should be
a learbning mirror for all scientists. After the commotion his theory
initiated, it took many decennia for others to stick in the falsification
stage. And still, this continues.

Sometimes, very good observations have been done, but (parts of) the
resulting theory appeared to be false. Not because of the 'arguments' put
forward during the commotion time immediately after the launch of the
theory. But because of more and better observations.
When Wegener (a meteorologist !) proposed his theory of continental drift
in the thirties, very strange 'arguments' were flamed by mostly American
scientists. Wegener was hit on his head with words like "He is a German
fairy tale teller" (Yes, also the political scene popped up in the
'scientific' arguments). The South African geologist Du Toit suggested
continental drift already at the end of the former century. Only in the
early sixties, continental drift revived. It was slightly changed from
Wegener's ideas: the continents were not drifting, but the mechanism was
described as plate tectonics. This revival was only possible because of
new observations, mainly derived from geophysical data (earth quakes,
magnetic anomalies).

There is however even another tendency in sciences: to turn around stage
(1) and (2). Scientists love to speculate, and then try to find the clues
for their theory. That's why it is so hard to know wether the observations
published, are objective observations, or selective observations. One
tries to find the proofs for the theory, so presenting the 'right'
observations, and leaving those which don't fit (the poltical thinking).

There are lots of examples. For instance Erich von Daniken (Were Gods
I know of another example. During the fifties and early sixties, their was
a Dutch man called Klaas Dijkstra, who claimed that the Earth was flat.
That is stage 2: speculation. He then tries to find proofs for this
theory. And he hesitated not to start discussions with scientists. Most of
these professionals made a fool of him. But I liked him, because he opened
my eyes, although his scientific thinking order was questionable. Why did
I liked him? It is because he denied completely the filtering and
pre-judging; he questioned the 'obvious' and demonstrated that the
'proofs' we learned at school for a round Earth were false (or at least
questionable too); he opened eyes to observe again (with other eyes) what
was already observed; he used data which were overseen or neglected.
Maybe he was the first who learned me to question the obvious. But he also
opened my eyes for the danger of manipulating observations and data.When
he promoted his theory, the first satellites were already making their
orbits around (according to him, above) the earth. But since at that time
there were only satellites following an equatorial orbit, it was no
problem for him. He was honoust enough to capitulate when satellites could
make a polar orbit. Luckily for him. he died just in time. A few years
after his death, these polar satellites were launched. New observations
came in the picture.

I think jumping to, or starting with stage (2) (speculation) and after
passing stage (3) (falsification) is ok as long as one turns back to
stage 1: observation. However, it is very difficult to do neutral
observations. Selective observations are so easy to make. And in fact each
observation is selective, if we like that or not.

As long as we speak of sunrise and sunset, Copernicus is not yet entered
in the minds of most people. As long as artists make pictures of a dark
sky and stars with a moon's sickle lightened on the upper side, we should
not blindly trust the interpretations (presented as observations) of
others. I have a nice collection of Christmas cards with this false scene
on them.

The three stages observation-speculation-falsification has been put in
another form by Edward de Bono: the six thinking hats. Observation: white
hat; speculation: green hat; falsification: black and yellow hat. The
strength of his method is the strict separation of these hats - a
separation in thought and dialogue. So mixing of the stages is excluded.
In his method there is no strict order. One could start with nearly each
There are two other hats: red and blue. The red hat is for emotions (an
important one, since most decisions are for a great deal based on
emotions, so give them a fair chance to open-up). The blue hat is symbol
for the registration/conducting of the process. It should be very neutral.
These six thinking hats are a very effective way for general and specific
issues. I think that for scientific matters, we must keep in mind that
following several loops (and loops within loops) is probably the most
important thing to do. The order is of less importance.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <>

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