Teaching the Scientific Method with Inception

Gokcek 2Today Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California, discusses a technique for teaching the scientific method. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind.”  –Eames the Forger

A course on research methods can elicit all kinds of emotions from both students and faculty — ambivalence, anxiety, or even fear. The active learning literature offers two reasons a course on research methods incites this kind of reaction: (1) covering statistics before properly introducing the scientific method, and (2) presenting the research process in a manner that lacks creativity.

Popular movies with puzzling endings are a creative way of teaching students the scientific method. Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception (2010) presents one such example. Inception’s premise revolves around Cobb, a thief who specializes in using dream technology to “extract” corporate secrets from the minds of his victims. Saito, the head of a major corporation, offers Cobb a job to plant an “idea” inside the mind of his main competitor, Fischer. In order to “incept” Fischer with an idea to divide up his father’s empire, Cobb recruits a team of thieves, who use dream technology to enter Fischer’s mind. The first half of the movie introduces the audience to the team, lays out the rules of the dreamscapes, and sets up the plot to “incept” Fischer. During the second half, the team uses a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles to enter Fischer’s mind through the dreamscapes. But the dream world poses challenges to the team as they battle Fischer’s mental defenses against the operation. The movie concludes with Fischer incepted and Cobb returning home to his children. The audience is left wondering if Cobb is still inside a dreamscape or if he has truly awakened and returned home.

A professor using a movie like Inception to teach the scientific method can do the following:

  • First, give the students questions about the movie’s ending: What kinds of evidence suggest that Cobb awakened in the end? What evidence suggests that Cobb is not awake in the end? (Sample student worksheet is here.)
  • Second, students can be asked to identify the relevant factors. This may be achieved by reviewing the plot of the movie for information that is vital to their interpretation of the ending. Students can be informed that each dreamer must have a totem, an inanimate object (like the top Cobb uses) that helps one distinguish the dream world from the dreamer’s own reality.
  • Third, students should be required to formulate testable hypotheses based on the information provided. For example, if the top does not fall then Cobb is dreaming, or if the top falls then Cobb is awake.
  • Fourth, students test their hypotheses by collecting information (data) both while viewing the film and afterwards by searching movie blogs online.
  • Finally, students should present their findings both orally and in writing, including any new questions that have emerged in the process.

Finding creative ways to engage students in the research process will not only help them truly grasp the “science” in political science, but will also create future ambassadors for our discipline who can demonstrate to outsiders the value of what it is that we do. If we can get students to appreciate the scientific method they will not only receive knowledge discovered by others, but also add to it. By using Inception in my methods courses, my students get “incepted” with the “idea” that the scientific process, as an opportunity to expand human knowledge, is to be welcomed rather than dreaded.

One Reply to “Teaching the Scientific Method with Inception”

  1. The movie I use for this is Chinatown. Science is detective work (basically) and this movie is perfect for conveying the basics. It is also a great teaching device for a common occurrence: the research project that mutates while you are doing it and, in turn, mutates the way evidence is used.

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