How to Make Observations like a Scientist

Annie Murphy Paul for Time on how scientists use field notes and why note-taking is a good idea:

“Seeing is not observing,” the University of Pittsburgh researchers point out. As practiced by scientists, observation is a rigorous activity that integrates what the scientists are seeing with what they already know and what they think might be true.

The ability to make deliberate decisions comes from observing and understanding the situation.

Scientists train their attention, learning to focus on relevant features and disregard those that are less salient. One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. “When you’re sketching something, you have to choose which marks to make on the page,” says Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist and editor of the recent book Field Notes on Science and Nature. “It forces you to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not.”

Focus and attention aren’t passive decisions. They come from scribbling notes, scratching things off, choosing what to say no to, and understanding what’s relevant. The physical action of jotting notes helps this process happen.

Eberbach and Crowley note that while novices use observation to collect information and then move on, scientists return to observing again and again, engaging in the cycle of observing, recording, testing, and analyzing many times over. It’s a lot more work than just looking, but it’s how great discoveries are made.

Begin with your notebook but go beyond the ideas written there to discover something great.