Imagine the scene: we’re in a chemistry lab, finishing off an experiment that the class have worked hard over for a couple of lab sessions and have done the required reading and planning and calculating and… A student walks up to a demonstrator or lecturer, thrusts their lab notebook forward and utters the immortal words ‘does this look right to you’, and indicates a value scrawled at the bottom of a page of mostly incomprehensible scribblings.
Let’s be clear, there are occasions when we are looking for a right answer, but in most experiments and in all research, there is simply no such thing. In all cases we care more about the process of obtaining the answer, making the necessary measurements, piecing together basic facts, and drawing reasonable conclusions. Science is not binary – right does not exist as a shiny goal amidst wrongness.
The quest for the right answer gets in the way of some seriously important characteristics for scientists. Creativity is necessary to interpret data, be open to the possibilities of alternative theories and ideas while curiosity is required to devise experiments that might tell us something useful about a particular system but we may not know exactly what that is. And you also need the ability to be critical – your experiment shows a 20% difference in performance between two similar things, is it a genuine effect or is it an experimental artefact. Was the experiment rigorously enough designed to allow you to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that there is a 20% difference? And caution, lets not forget caution. Whether its about not adding water to strong acid, or ensuring that your instrument (on which your results and therefor your self-esteem depends) is adequately calibrated so that you can say that the results are reasonable. Something gives you a really high or really low value – can the instrument actually read that low or that high? Your data look fantastic but you left the samples out on the bench all night – what are the chances that they are still OK? Creativity, curiosity, criticism and caution.
Unfortunately exams create an artificial sense of right-ness (I’m throwing caution to the wind to make up words now!). In an exam the correct answer gets full marks, right? Not necessarily. If you have a well written exam question that is sufficiently challenging the best answer may get full marks, the answer that demonstrates sufficient mastery of the material scores highly, not just the best memorisation of the material. Ultimately scientists have to think for themselves, and this means evaluating their experimental results, pushing learning beyond simply memorising facts to regurgitate on cue, and that’s hard. Yes it’s easier to just shove your lab notebook in front of someone else and ask them to think for you, but seriously, you gain nothing from that process and if you’re paying tuition fees, you’re wasting them by doing it.