Definition of the Scientific Method

Whilst any definition of the scientific method is always a little difficult, due to the vast number of scientific disciplines and subtypes, there are a few basic fundamentals that are common to them all.

Research Basics

This article is a part of the course "Research Basics".

Scientific Definitions

Various dictionaries and online resources give a strict definition of the scientific method, relating the scientific process from beginning to end.

Whilst these definitions are useful, they are very narrow and lead to many of the misunderstandings where the general public believes that science is infallible, and that scientists are always right.

Here, we will try to break down some of these barriers and find a milder definition of the scientific method that is a little more 'user friendly.'

Taking some dictionary definitions:

"The principles and empirical processes of discovery and demonstration considered characteristic of or necessary for scientific investigation, generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to demonstrate the truth or falseness of the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis."

From: answers.com

"Sciences: Rigorous, systematic approach, designed to eliminate bias and other subjective influences in the search, identification, and measurement or validation of facts and cause-effect relationships, and from which scientific laws may be deduced."

From: businessdictionary.com

The Definition of the Scientific Method - The Holy Grail of Ultimate Proof

The definition of the scientific method, even amongst many scientists, is seen as some holy grail of science that achieves absolute and unarguable proof.

Lawyers and advertisers proudly boast about the scientific method, believing that it provides irrefutable proof. CSI: Miami shows how forensic scientists take a skin cell and extract the DNA, using their findings to convict the bad guy.

Whilst I love CSI: Miami, this definition of the scientific method is flawed, and it does not take into account how scientists actually work. Scientists are fully aware of what they are trying to achieve through their research, and are usually aware of the inbuilt inaccuracies and artifacts in their work.

The Hollywood depictions portray scientists as infallible, but this is simply not true and it never has been. Courtrooms also carry an inbuilt bias, because the burden of proof is always 'of beyond reasonable doubt.'

In science, there is no reasonable doubt, no black and white, and even the most established theory can be challenged and falsified as part of the scientific process.

The other problem with the scientific method is that many disciplines cannot follow it exactly, especially social and behavioural sciences and, most notoriously, psychology. The damage wreaked by Freud, where he claimed to know ALL of the answers, still resonates amongst modern psychology and has tarnished the image of the discipline.

The Incorrect Definition of the Scientific Method - The Strawman Cometh

There is a lot of publicity about the definition of the scientific method, taking up many inches of newsprint and thousands of webpages.

Creationists constantly attempt to debunk evolution, claiming that it is incomplete and flawed. Miscarriages of justice revolve around the fact that juries took the testimony of 'expert scientific witnesses' to be true beyond reproach.

Ultimately, these misapplications of the definition of the scientific method reflect back upon science, and scientists must do a much better job of explaining that science does not deal in absolutes.

Creationists attacking the fact that any scientific theory must adapt and grow completely miss the point, whether deliberately or inadvertently, and attack science for being infallible, when it has never claimed to find irrefutable proof of anything.

Sadly, this strawman argument is what captures the imagination of the public. Personally, I believe that the basic definition of the scientific method should be taught in science lessons; too many pupils learn the skills for designing and performing experiments but never learn the reasoning behind it.

Every science student should know the basic reasoning of Popper, Feyerabend and Kuhn.

The Definition of the Scientific Method and Pseudoscience

With this concession, people will be able to understand that science is not perfect and does not claim to be. The definition of the scientific method is a strict protocol dictating the underlying philosophy behind scientific research.

However, people must also be aware that many sciences cannot follow the scientific method exactly, due to the difficulty of defining reliability and validity.

This, more than anything, will begin to dampen down the animosity between scientists and non-scientists and also make scientists much more approachable.

Of course, when pseudoscientists boast that their latest scam is 'tested by the scientific method,' then this becomes an extremely difficult process.

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Citation: 

(Nov 18, 2009). Definition of the Scientific Method. Retrieved Apr 20, 2014 from Explorable.com: https://explorable.com/definition-of-the-scientific-method