2. How to Think Like a Scientist – Colorful Cats

phineas_scientist001When i was a little kid, my family got a kitten. He was an orange tabby and I named him “Tang” after the powdered orange flavored breakfast beverage that NASA astronauts drank.

My cousins also had an orange cat and I had seen tigers at the Bronx Zoo, so I figured that all cats were orange. Imagine my shock when I saw my neighbor’s grey cat. What the heck? I guess I was wrong. After that I knew better, that cats were either orange or grey. Of course I was still very wrong, but I was closer to the truth.

NASA Tang AdvertisementIt’s okay to be wrong. Some of the best scientific discoveries are found that way. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was already thinking like a scientist, following the scientific method.

  1. I made an observation (orange cat)
  2. I made an educated guess (all cats are orange)
  3. I tested and verified the hypothesis (my cousin has an orange cat, and tigers are orange)
  4. Then I found that the hypothesis was false (oops! Some cats are grey)
  5. I revised my hypothesis (cats are either orange or grey)

Let’s examine these steps because they show how a guess becomes a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis must be tentative, predictive, verifiable and falsifiable.

Yikes! What does that mean?

  • Tentative means I am not certain about my hypothesis, and I will change my mind if there is evidence that I was wrong.
  • Predictive means I am not just explaining what I have found. I am also making claims about future observations. The next cat anyone sees will be either orange or grey.
  • Verifiable means I can find more orange or grey cats. If I cannot, I got problems!
  • Falsifiable means that I can make an experiment to prove that my hypothesis is wrong. If I see a cat that is any other color besides orange or grey (maybe a black cat) then my hypothesis is wrong, it has been falsified.

It is impossible for me to check every cat in the world, so I can never completely prove my hypothesis. With each cat I find that is orange or grey, my hypothesis is more likely to be correct. But all I need is one black cat to make my hypothesis false.

Cat Named TangFun Phineas Fact
If an idea cannot be falsified, it is only an opinion. For example, “cats are weird” is not a hypothesis. Even if it is true, since it cannot be disproven it is not scientifically relevant. To be scientifically valid, a hypothesis must survive all attempts to falsify it. If I still believed that all cats are orange after I have seen a grey one, it would just be silly. But my opinion that orange kittens are cuter would still stand.

Website: Tang in Space

Video: 1970s Tang Commercial