The scientific method is one of the most useful tools when trying to analyze and interact with the objective world. But its usefulness is not limited to just that. It can also be quite handy when dealing with even subjective matters such as literature and pop culture. So let’s take some time to discuss how to use the principles of the scientific method in analyzing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
What is the Scientific Method?
While I’m sure many of you are familiar with the scientific method from your science classes, a quick refresher on it wouldn’t hurt. The basic steps of the scientific method are as follows:
1) Ask a question
2) Gather information and observations
3) Develop a hypothesis
4) Test the hypothesis
5) Analyze and interpret the data
6) Draw a conclusion
7) Rinse and repeat
Now depending on where you go the list might be a little different based on how they define words, but this is the general pattern and has the four main components; observe, predict, test, analyze. The trickier part, of course, is what exactly do all of these steps mean and how do they apply to analyzing a show like Friendship is Magic? Well, the best way to go about that is just to go over each step and discuss the principles that may be particularly important for our purposes. For analysis, then, the steps above can go more like:
1) Ask a question
2) Background research
3) Develop a hypothesis
4) Build an Argument
5) Share it
We’ll be focusing primarily among 1-4.
Asking a Question
This one is pretty straightforward. While watching the show or reading a fanfiction or whatever it is you’re doing, something catches your attention and you’re like “Wow, that’s kind of neat.” You start thinking about it and, well, you start asking yourself questions like “Why is that character like that?” or “How does that work?” There are some characteristics that need to be kept in mind when developing a question, however, that should help in the development of a good question.
1) It can be empirically verifiable. It’s a question that can be answered in an objective, observable manner. This means when developing your question, it’s something that can be tested by looking at the show or other related materials. This is where analysis based on head-canon can be kind of tricky since often times a person’s personal head-canon is not exactly drawn from the show and there is no way for someone else to test it. Doesn’t mean the head-canon is bad, just not exactly helpful for analysis purposes unless you have the arguments to back them up.
2) It’s falsifiable. Many philosophers of science have argued that falsifiability is one of, if not the, most important characteristic of science. Basically, any question you ask has to be something that can be rejected in the face of contravening evidence. Basically, you have to be willing to be proved wrong. It’s this characteristic that a lot of the other important principles of scientific knowledge tends to draw from; keeping an open mind, withholding judgment till after testing, etc. etc. While most people can write a question in this manner, it’s often that the rest of the meaning tends to get lost. It’s understandable; people don’t like being proved wrong, and our mind has a lot of tricks to stop that. But when dealing with analysis, you have got to be willing to put your stuff out there with an understanding it will be challenged, and you have to be willing to change your mind as well.
3) It’s transmissible. Whatever question you’re attempting to answer, others have to be able to look at it and understand how you got your ideas. In science this is for replication purposes, which isn’t that important for analysis. But making it clear how you got to your idea is important, especially if you’re wanting to use head-canon which is not necessarily as easy to replicate as, say, the television episodes. Again, doesn’t mean you can’t use it, just that it should be made clear when it is being used and you explain how you got to it.
4) It’s cumulative. Knowledge builds on top of knowledge. This is where the next step of gathering information is helpful because it helps you build that foundation. So when you’re making your questions, try and build on what exists and expand on it. Originality is good of course, but even “original” stuff follows in the path of what has come before.
5) Parsimony. A.k.a “Keep it simple stupid.” When presented with two equally compelling arguments, science tends to defer to the simpler answer. Overcomplicating matters often brings in more problems than answers and makes things a whole lot messier and unwieldy. Again, this is assuming all things are equal.
Now there are some other characteristics, but those are more important for research than analysis so we can move on.
Gather Information and Observations
Once you have a question, it’s time to do some background research on the subject. Try and track down other reviews or analysis on the question you’re interested in and see what they had to say. It’s possible your question has already been answered, or maybe someone brings up a point you never thought of. Either way, your original question may end up being modified. This step is also important because it kind of helps you to learn what it is you are talking about by giving you familiarity with the subject matter. This is also the stage where you are going to try and define very clearly what you want to talk about and any terms that may need defining. Once you have an understanding of what you are dealing with, it’ll be easier to develop hypotheses in the next step.
So using one of my articles as an example, I had asked myself “What does ‘Friendship is Magic’ mean?” Before making up my mind on this I had to go and do some research on the Elements of Harmony by watching episodes that dealt with them. I also watched other analysis videos, fanfics, and anything else I could find that dealt with the topic. After consuming whatever info I could find, I moved on to the next step.
Before doing that, however, there is the question of what counts as a good source of information. Obviously you got the television show, and then there are spinoff series such as the comic books and book series which are generally accepted as “canon”. Then there is staff interviews, social media posts, etc. This, from my perspective, is a little iffier. Generally it’s probably okay to use them, but I would argue they should be done with a little more grain of salt, particularly anything said by Faust. Yes, I understand she made the show and designed the characters, but since leaving the show it has gone in directions from what she originally planned. Therefore, I would argue, her original ideas and designs are no longer solid and may in fact not be supported by information after she left. Again, doesn’t mean she isn’t a good source of information, just that she isn’t the final word. Lowest level of data, of course, would be fanworks like fanfiction and analysis. Good for getting ideas though.
Develop a Hypothesis
This is where we start getting into the core of the scientific method, and where I get to play research methods tutor. So let’s start with the most obvious thing; what is a hypothesis? Well, most of you are probably familiar with the simple definition of it being sort of like an “educated guess.” And for the most part that works, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Good hypotheses have several characteristics:
1) It’s empirical. This means that a good hypothesis is a statement of some kind of testable relationship, not a normative statement that deals with how things “should” be. In analysis, you’ll often be dealing with both empirical and normative statements, however. Just remember that normative statements often use empirical evidence as part of a larger argument. Therefore even in dealing with that kind of analysis everything discussed in this article is still relevant.
2) It’s general. Hypotheses for research are generally done in such a manner that they can be applied to more than a single, specific case. Admittedly though this characteristic isn’t as important in an analytical manner since often times you may be analyzing a single episode. The more useful part of this characteristic for analysis, then, is its implications about the importance of a broader outlook. When, say, analyzing a character, it’s probably important to look at or incorporate their actions within the larger series than how they behaved in one, single scene. At the very least, that’s probably more interesting.
3) It’s plausible. This is where the background research comes in. When you develop a hypothesis, it has to have some level of sense to it. Background research can help you provide the evidence for that.
4) It’s testable. Basically you can test the hypothesis. For analysis, this means that you’re discussing something that can actually be discussed and put to the test.
Again, there are other characteristics, but again not important for analysis purposes.
Build an Argument
In analysis, testing the hypothesis is more along the lines of building an argument. Either way, empirical evidence is going to be used. Now we’ve already talked about going to the television show, books, comics, interviews, etc., in the Gathering Information part, and basically you’re going to repeat that step here. The difference is in the mindset on how you approach it, with all those characteristics mentioned earlier being brought in.
When building your argument, it may be easy to simply focus on things that support your argument. But, remembering falsifiability, you should make sure to also focus on any information that may prove you wrong. This is really important so as to ensure you avoid confirmation bias, which is our tendency to seek out and give more importance to things that agree with us than disagree with us.
So for example, when developing my article on “Party of One and Ethical Hedonism”, I brought up the possibility that Pinkie Pie was an egoistic hedonist based on some her behaviors that didn’t seem to fit with my idea of her as a utilitarian. Once I presented these, however, I proceeded to argue how they could still fit into my theory. When developing your own analysis, a point-counterpoint-rebuttal style is probably a good way to write while ensuring you aren’t falling into confirmation bias.
When developing your argument, you also must make sure you have a good understanding of the appropriate amount of data you will need. Depending on what you’re looking at, that will vary. Analyzing an episode, you probably just need that episode and any reference materials if you are discussing some bigger point. Analyzing a character will probably require looking at the series as a whole.
And when analyzing something that hasn’t come out yet, well, you should hold out on doing so. Yes, in this case I am referring to Equestria Girls. While you can develop ideas and theories, and have feelings about it, the amount of information out is very limited. When analyzing a work, you should probably wait till the work comes out so you have the full picture of what you are looking at. Anything else and, well, you’re trying to analyze without sufficient information, which of course can lead to faulty conclusions.
So in short, when going into your argument, you must go in with an open mind and understanding that you can be proved wrong, must make attempts to prove yourself wrong, and ensure that you gathering the largest amount of data that is practical. Any judgments should be withheld till the very end after all is said and done.
Like I said, the scientific method is one of the most useful tools for analyzing our world. Having an understanding of the principles behind it improve not just our scientific understanding but also our understanding of literature, art, etc. Keeping an open mind, doing research, making guesses and putting them to the test are all useful for improving the quality of analysis and engaging in meaningful discussion.