Science of Questions and Questions in Science

Guest Post by Phil Bishop

Without questions, there is no science. And, good science requires good questions.

In my 32 years as a professor of Exercise Science I had the privilege of mentoring 52 Ph.D. students in their dissertations, and quite a few Master’s theses. It was quite common for my students to come into my office with a big smile of accomplishment.

“I’ve got a great idea for my dissertation research.” They would offer with enthusiasm.

With a smile only a little less excited, I would reply every time, “Research doesn’t deal with ideas it deals with questions!”

Their smile would fail a bit, but then I’d reassure them, “You do have a good idea, just think about how you can turn it into a question.”

They came back with good questions like:

  • What is the role of fatigue in women’s soccer?
  • What are effective recovery techniques for high-level swimmers.
  • What is the role of warm-up in skilled swimmers performance over 25 meters?
  • What is the impact of drinking rate on hydration retention?
  • Does living in a home with stairs improve fitness in older people?

Science experiments are designed to answer questions. Different branches of science use different techniques, but from physics to physiology, experiments are designed around the one (usually) question at hand.

What makes a good science research question?

Anyone who studies questions recognizes that some questions are superior to others. With science questions this is also true.  Here are a couple of examples of questions needed to evaluate the quality of a research question.

  • Can I answer this research question with the measurement techniques and equipment I have at hand?
  • Do I have access to the proper research participants?
  • Can I convince enough participants to be in the study to give a sufficient sample size?
  • What is the anticipated drop-out rate for participants?
  • What is the appropriate statistical analysis?
  • Do I need collaborators?
  • Do I love this topic enough to stick through the long process from conception of the research question to its publication?
  • I would invite my graduate students to think about their research question with the hope they would ask these follow-up questions on their own. But, if they neglected a key question, I would try to question them to sharpen their own questioning.

    Question Answering Begets More Questions

    It took me a while to recognize as a scientist that answering questions leads to more questions. Throughout my career, I never lacked for research questions, and retiring as a scientist was hard, partially because I had some questions that I, and my students, had never had time to answer.

    After a while I recognized that the best way to generate research questions was to try to answer a good research question. I realized that every time we entered the lab to answer one question, we generated two or three more research questions. That led me to get my students engaged in research early in their training.  Those who didn’t had trouble coming up with good questions. Those who did get involved had a host of research questions from which to choose for their theses and dissertations.

    Asking questions No One Else is Asking

    “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine

    Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi could have said, “To see what everyone else has seen, and ask questions that no one else has asked.”

    When our research team looked at our specialized field’s history of research questions, we noticed something odd. Almost everyone on the sports side of our field (as opposed to the basic science or clinical science aspects) had asked questions about sport training. And, true enough an elite athlete can devote upwards of four hours each day to training and additional hours to tactics, nutrition, massages and so forth.

    What’s the missing questions? What about those other 20 hours when they aren’t training? What do we know about those hours? Well, it turns out that very few scientists had asked questions about those hours.

    So we began to ask questions like:

  • How quickly do runners recover from a hard run?
  • Is there any difference between sportsmen and sportswomen in recovery?
  • What statistic can we use to analyze individual sportsmen/women since most statistics analyze group means?
  • What can be done to speed recovery in runners?
  • How long does it take young gymnasts to recover from a typical workout?
  • What can be done to speed recovery in swimmers?
  • Does age of the sportsmen/women impact recovery time?
  • As you might expect, as we asked these questions, more and more questions arose. At the time I retired to begin work with Cru Faculty ministry, our lab had published more on recovery research questions than any other in the world.

    So, are the best science researchers those who can ask the best questions?

    What do you think?

    Phillip Bishop

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Phil Bishop, EdD is a Graduate of the US Naval Academy, James Madison University, and the University of Georgia where he earned a Doctorate. Phil and his wife Brenda have five children. He was a faculty member of the University of Alabama from 1984 to 2016 and was promoted to full professor in 1994. He also taught at Virginia Military Institute and Liberty University. He has 200 refereed publications and has over 400 professional presentations. He  mentored 52 Ph.D. students as dissertation chair. He has been a visiting scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, a visiting professor at the US Military Academy, a visiting researcher at the Swedish National Winter-Sport Center, and served as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Botswana Jan-Dec, 2013. He has visited over 60 countries. He is author of Measurement and Evaluation (2 editions) the coauthor of Fit Over Fifty. Dr. Bishop speaks frequently across the USA and in other countries.

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