Exploration and Observation in Biology


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Jane Goodall collecting qualitative data on chimpanzee behavior. Goodall recorded her observations in field notebooks, often with sketches of the animals’ behavior.
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 17). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Exploration and Observation in Biology (Campbell Biology)

Our innate curiosity often stimulates us to pose questions about the natural basis for the phenomena we observe in the world. For example, what causes the roots of a plant seedling to grow downward? In fine-tuning their questions, biologists rely heavily on the scientific literature, the published contributions of fellow scientists. By reading about and understanding past studies, scientists can build on the foundation of existing knowledge, focusing their investigations on observations that are original and on hypotheses that are consistent with previous findings. Identifying publications relevant to a new line of research is now easier than at any point in the past, thanks to indexed and searchable electronic databases.

In the course of their work, biologists make careful observations. In gathering information, they often use tools such as microscopes, precision thermometers, or high-speed cameras that extend their senses or facilitate careful measurement. Observations can reveal valuable information about the natural world. For example, a series of detailed observations have shaped our understanding of cell structure, and another set of observations is currently expanding our databases of genome sequences from diverse species and databases of genes whose expression is altered in various diseases.

Recorded observations are called data. Put another way, data are items of information on which scientific inquiry is based. The term data implies numbers to many people. But some data are qualitative, often in the form of recorded descriptions rather than numerical measurements. For example, Jane Goodall spent decades recording her observations of chimpanzee behavior during field research in a Tanzanian jungle. In her studies, Goodall also enriched the field of animal behavior with volumes of quantitative data, such as the frequency and duration of specific behaviors for different members of a group of chimpanzees in a variety of situations. Quantitative data are generally expressed as numerical measurements and often organized into tables and graphs. Scientists analyze their data using a type of mathematics called statistics to test whether their results are significant or merely due to random fluctuations. All results presented in this text have been shown to be statistically significant.

Collecting and analyzing observations can lead to important conclusions based on a type of logic called inductive reasoning. Through induction, we derive generalizations from a large number of specific observations. “The sun always rises in the east” is an example. And so is “All organisms are made of cells.” Careful observations and data analyses, along with generalizations reached by induction, are fundamental to our understanding of nature.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition. https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/series/Campbell-Biology-Series/2244849.html


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