discoveries magazine

How to Think Like a Scientist: A Crash Course

What are the practices and mindsets that help drive great science? We asked Cedars-Sinai researchers and experts to weigh in about the processes scientists use to shape their work and drive progress.

An illustration of scientific activities.

The pandemic put science—and scientists—into a white-hot spotlight. For those of us who haven’t spent our lives in the field, the process of science can look confusing. For some, that can lead to an outsized faith in the discipline ("Science is magic!"), while for others, it can give rise to deep skepticism ("Science is bunk!").

The reality is that neither is true. The careful, methodical processes that are the foundation of science have been honed over centuries, and scientists follow them for good reason. But science also has flaws, just like any human endeavor. Still, its larger aim of understanding the world more clearly through observation and experiments is one that most of us can get behind.

So what does the work of a scientist really entail? How do researchers think about scientific questions and try to solve them? How do they make sure their output is good and that their very best ideas make it out into the world to improve lives?

Sure, you could carve out the next decade of your life to earn an MD or PhD and find out for yourself. Don’t have that kind of time? We’ve condensed some of the most important insights about scientific thinking into a six-lesson minicourse you can take right now. Let’s get started.

By the time we’re old enough to speak in sentences, we’re asking questions: Why is the world this way? How can we make it better?

We’re all familiar with the lone genius myth—a wild-haired scientist mixing burbling chemicals in a basement laboratory—but the reality is that the best scientists team up with others to pursue ambitious work.

Bias can be as simple as hoping for a certain outcome in an experiment—but its tentacles can be far-reaching and harmful.

The unique and challenging process of scientific publication can help root out the most egregious mistakes in research before they reach a wide audience.

The most earth-shattering research findings won’t make a dent if scientists can’t share their results in ways that resonate.

Viewed through the lens of history, science moves at a relative gallop. Smallpox, a disease that existed for at least 3,000 years and killed up to 30% of those infected, was eradicated through a two-decade, worldwide vaccination campaign that ended in 1980.