Patterns among relatives: A classroom activity III

The simple classroom activity presented in the previous two posts allows us to unpack the simple picture of science as empirical observation and rational interpretation (i.e., identifying patterns and trying to explain them).

These are only two of the many steps in scientific inquiry (figure 5).  At each step decisions are made that depend on knowledge—perhaps assumed knowledge—in addition to what can be drawn from any data collected.  Scientific inquiry cannot proceed without decisions that take into account diverse additional considerations, such as, in this classroom activity: technical constraints of plotting in three dimensions; theories about the mechanisms of heredity, temporal ordering (parents grow before their offspring are born and grow), whether to collect data about the diet of parents and offspring when they were growing up, and conventions about designation of outlier status to extreme points.  Each step becomes a site where decisions made can be shaped by convention, ongoing negotiation, and wider influences.  These “sites of sociality” invite critical scrutiny (Taylor 2005). We can, for example, consider the ways that preconceptions or preferences about the outcomes at the later steps feed forward to earlier ones (as depicted by the dashed lines in figure 5) so that the inquiry tends to reinforce that outcome.  As will be shown in the discussion of Galton’s work, such feed forward loops can involve the social actions or organization supported or desired by scientists—what they think we as a society can or should do.

Figure 5.  A chain of steps in scientific inquiry in which each step (indicated by an arrow ->) involves assumptions and is open for negotiation and wider influences.  The dashed lines depict the possibility that desired outcomes for the later stages influence decisions made at earlier steps.  See text for discussion.


Through this classroom activity two themes have emerged:

  • There are many sites in scientific inquiry at which decisions are made based on knowledge drawn from outside the observations to be explained.
  • The negotiation, assumptions about social possibilities and constraints, and wider influences that shape decisions made at these open sites invite critical scrutiny.

These themes extend some more basic themes about interpreting science in its social context:

  • It can be illuminating to ask what the authors (including ourselves) state or imply about what we can do.  (This deliberately broad formulation encompasses views about the social actions and organization they support as well as their views about the capabilities of different people growing up in our society and how difficult these are to change.)
  • Close examination of concepts and methods within any given natural or social science can stimulate our inquiries into the diverse social influences shaping that science, and reciprocally.

For more discussion of these themes, see Taylor, P. “Why was Galton so concerned about ‘regression to the mean’? -A contribution to interpreting and changing science and society” DataCritica, 2(2): 3-22, 2008,, from which this post has been adapted, and Taylor (2005, chapter 2).


Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (Chiacgo: U. Chicago Press)


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