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Research scientists ask many what-if questions! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Research scientists ask very many what-if questions!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)


I have earlier described the necessity for all scientists to ask very many questions while they are doing research studies (see: “Research Scientists Must Ask Myriad Questions!” ).  That article was for working scientists, but this one is for all who are not scientists!

Here you will take a closer look at the frequent questions beginning with  “What if?”, and examine how those queries are helpful to researchers.  The what-if kind of questioning is nothing less than mental experimentation involving curiosity, imagination, judgments, and predictions, as well as ordinary worrying and wishful thinking!

On the nature of common what-if queries by research scientists! 

While conducting experiments for a research project in a university or industry lab, scientists often ask themselves what-if  questions about what will happen if something is changed (e.g., the concentration of a reagent used in an assay, the means for preparing a sample to be examined, the operation of a research instrument, the statistical methods used for data analysis, etc.).  Such queries are usually considered only in thought, rather than being conducted in the lab; however, these deliberations later can lead to actual changes.  This questioning is simply the  mental testing of an idea or possibility.

Other frequent what-if questioning by scientists concerns specific causes and effects in their work activities.  These include asking oneself about the possible consequences of making some change (e.g., what if I could have another student working in my lab, what additional work could I do if I woke up an hour earlier, what if I ask Dan G. or Judy W. to collaborate with me, etc.)?   Many of these are wishful thinking about making choices for conducting research investigations or finding success with applications for research grants.  While such questions sometimes lead nowhere, they also can help make better decisions of practical importance for being a good researcher.

How does what-if questioning help scientists do good research? 

It should be obvious that the what-if questioning described above is an inherent part of doing research.  What-if questions take only a small amount of time, but often recur again and again a few minutes or days later.  This questioning usually is an innate activity rather than something learned in graduate school courses.   What-if questions typically occur all the time and reflect worries or conflicts.  Asking these queries helps research scientists to (1) make stronger decisions, judgments, and conclusions, (2) critically evaluate alternative possibilities, and, (3) incisively develop new ideas.

Interpreting data and deciding which conclusion is best are important targets of what-if questioning (e.g., what would be the acceptance by other scientists if I concluded X instead of Y; if my new interpretation is later found to be wrong, what would I do?).  These worries help scientists to think critically about their research activities, to be more careful not to make a mistaken judgment, and to consider alternatives.  Although many what-if  queries are not easy to answer (e.g., what if I leave this experiment for later?), such mental debates often help research scientists make good decisions and better plans.

Brief discussion! 

Almost all adults (non-scientists) commonly have been taught that research is designed using “the scientific method”, and that experiments always should go exactly as planned.  In my experience, both dogmas are not true!  Research investigations are inherently chancy, and conclusions often change and evolve.  Asking many questions helps make science better!

Part of being a creative scientist is to make discoveries and to develop new understanding.  I am convinced that the mental efforts to accomplish those goals strongly depend upon being curious and having a questioning mind!  This is true for grad students and postdocs, as well as for professors!

Concluding remarks! 

What-if questions with mental experiments and debates help research scientists to adopt changes, anticipate problems, develop new ideas, examine alternative possibilities, and, refine conclusions.  Being a successful scientist and productive researcher depends upon asking many questions, as well as running good experiments in the lab.  Good questioners become good research scientists!