Scientific Method


As a system administrator, my job is to fix computer problems. To do this, I often exercise parts of the scientific method:

At work, I support engineering professors and graduate students. These professors teach hard science, so I consider them to be scientists. As such, I expect them to be able to execute some portion of the scientific method, in order to help me solve their problems. It is usually trivial for a computer end user to identify patterns of cause-and-effect (“Every time I do this, it locks up."), or to at least provide a reasonably descriptive explanation of the problem. Instead, these scientists often simply say “It doesn’t work.”.

What doesn’t work? In what way does it not work? What were you expecting to happen? What really did happen?

I sometimes lose my cool when dealing with these problems, but on the whole I try to remember that these people just don’t care about their computers to take the time to learn about them. The computer is a means to an end, and if the computer isn’t acting properly then it’s an impediment to the objective. Why should these people spend any time investigating their computers when I’m on staff to do exactly that?

For one professor I have written down step-by-step instructions to help him execute a simple task. He doesn’t do this task with tremendous regularity, so it’s not something that sticks in his mind. If anything happens while performing this task he will immediately call me for help. He won’t read the message on the screen. He won’t try to deduce what a correct action might be. He won’t consult Google or any other resource for help. He stops everything and calls me.

Similarly, I’ve written instructions down for my dad on how to perform a specific task. These instructions have worked pretty well for the last couple of months, and then recently something has changed rendering my instructions invalid. The first time it didn’t work he assumed he did something wrong and tried again. Again it failed. My dad didn’t check with the all-knowing Google. He didn’t try to experiment. He sent me an email asking for help. To be fair, I don’t know that my dad would have been able to feed the proper search terms to Google. But computers have actively discouraged people from experimenting, from trying to solve their own problems. The error messages are complex and unhelpful. People already timid about lack of computer expertise end up feeling like idiots.

I used to scorn people who wouldn’t even try to help themselves. I would feel superior to them because I could solve their problems quickly and easily. And then I bought a house.

I never took shop class in high school. I wasn’t a very good Cub Scout, and didn’t stay long in Boy Scouts. I played with Erector Sets and LEGOs and computers, but never really had the desire to disassemble things to see how they worked. When I became a home owner, I was suddenly faced with a tremendous number of challenges for which I had no practical experience in solving. I didn’t know where to start. Even asking Google for help was often an exercise in futility, as I got conflicting answers or just links to contractors willing to solve my problems for me.

I called my dad a lot the first couple years of my home ownership. Plumbing problems, duct problems, electrical problems, and more all had me completely stymied. Dad was always super patient, and usually very helpful. I like to think that I was successful in accurately explaining the problems I experienced – providing sufficient detail about cause and effect, what noises I might be hearing from where, etc. – but the reality is that I didn’t even try to solve many of these problems on my own. I had an expert handy, and relied on him to help me fix the problem.

In the years since I think I’ve done a pretty good job extrapolating from my earlier experiences. I can handle most plumbing problems on my own now. (Though still I absolutely refuse to deal with electricity – it scares the crap out of me.) I try to apply the scientific method to the problems I have at home. I frequently repeat the mantra that my dad shared with me: “Measure twice, but cut only one.” I try to take my time, and do things right the first time. I do all of this because I care about the quality of my home. It’s not just a place for me to sleep, but a sanctuary for me.

I need to remember that for the people I support at work, their computer is as much a burden as it is a productivity device. They don’t care about it, nor about the correct resolution to their problems. They’re not going to exercise any portion of the scientific method because they have me there to do it for them.

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