How do you explain what research is?
My go-to metaphor has been a jigsaw puzzle.
We do research to get a picture of what the world looks like. Every time we figure something out, we are putting pieces together. Unlike other jigsaw puzzles, the science jigsaw puzzle doesn’t have picture on the box top. We are figuring out what the picture looks like as we go.
You know how when you’re putting together a puzzle, that some pieces are more critical than others, that you can build off of? But sometimes you’re just putting pieces into a big patch of blue sky or a monochrome quilt or whatever? This is the difference between transformational research and confirmatory research.
Let’s say we get so many pieces of the puzzle together that we figure it out. But here’s the rub: this picture is just one image of what we’re trying to understand. From a single perspective. It might even be a cartoon drawing. Research helps us draw that picture, and we understand it better, but that just means we need to pull a new box off the shelf, which often is just a different perspective on the same subject. That change in perspective, I suppose, is a paradigm shift.
A different description of research that has gotten a lot of visibility is from Matt Might. I like this one, too, though I’ve argued with some aspects of it, but there’s an elegance in its simplicity.
Anyway, I’ve milked the puzzle metaphor in a variety of directions. What’s your metaphor for scientific discovery?