In a science classroom at a middle school I saw a poster about “the scientific method.” There were seven steps; one was “analyze your data.” According to the poster, you use the data you’ve collected to say if your hypothesis was right or wrong. Nothing was said about using data to generate new hypotheses. Yet coming up with ideas worth testing is just as important as testing them.

It’s like teaching the alphabet and omitting half of the letters. Or teaching French and omitting half the common words. While no one actually teaches only half the alphabet or only half of common French words, this is how science is actually taught. Not just in middle school, everywhere. The poster correctly reflects the usual understanding. I have seen dozens of books about scientific method. They usually say almost nothing about how to come up with a new idea worth testing. An example is Statistics For Experimenters, a well-respected book by Box, Hunter, and Hunter. One of the authors (George Box) is a famous statistician.

The curious part of this omission is how unnecessary it is. Every scientific idea we now take for granted started somewhere. It would be no great effort to find where a bunch of them came from.