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Appreciating methodology

The most basic reporting of scientific research can be broken down into four sections: introduction, methods (and materials), results, and discussion. However, it is not the purpose of this article to discuss the merits of these in detail, rather I would like to shed a light on what I believe to be an often underappreciated component of it: The methods section.

Methods is arguably the most boring component of a research paper: It discusses how the experiment is designed and how it will work as well as how statistics will be used to evaluate the data when applicable. Indeed, often it is riddled with technical information and jargon. In comparison, the other sections are much more interesting for the conventional reader, in particular the discussion. The discussion provides interpretation of the results and what implications can be derived from the findings of the study. Consequently, many people, including myself at times, like to jump right into the discussion to see what the story is all about. While oftentimes this is a fairly harmless approach, other times it is not necessarily appropriate. After all, the methods section describes how the study has been designed, and therefore, an error in design clearly can impact the validity and interpretation of the results.

Another reason for appreciating the methods section comes from its ingenuity. Though sometimes methods are fairly clear-cut, owing to the fact that similar studies have often been conducted from which methods can be similarly recreated, other times it requires innovation and creativity.

Although I may be stepping out of my boundaries of expertise here, one particular example that I came across recently may serve to illustrate my point. Dr. David Travis of the University of Wisconsin and a colleague had been studying climate change and were interested in the effect of air travel. However, because air travel is continuous it is hard to see what the effects of air travel are without knowing the circumstances of no air travel. After 9-11, an unusual opportunity presented itself when air travels ceased for a few days and it occurred to these scientists that this presented a unique opportunity to see the effect of no air travel on the climate. Indeed, according to an article on CNN, the researchers reported that "During the three-day commercial flight hiatus, when the artificial clouds known as contrails all but disappeared, the variations in high and low temperatures increased by 1.1°C (2°F) each day" -- indicating a significant affect on climate.

Though it may not appear to have been very innovative, sometimes it also requires keen recognition of unique circumstances and seizing upon such opportunities, which may not arise again for the foreseeable future to make studies happen.

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