What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method, as defined by various scientists and philosophers, has a fairly rigorous structure that should be followed.

Research Basics

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

In reality, apart from a few strictly defined physical sciences, most scientific disciplines have to bend and adapt these rules, especially sciences involving the unpredictability of natural organisms and humans.

In many ways, it is not always important to know the exact scientific method, to the letter, but any scientist should have a good understanding of the underlying principles.

In many ways, if you are going to bend and adapt the rules, you need to understand the rules in the first place.

Empirical

Science is based purely around observation and measurement, and the vast majority of research involves some type of practical experimentation.

This can be anything, from measuring the Doppler Shift of a distant galaxy to handing out questionnaires in a shopping center. This may sound obvious, but this distinction stems back to the time of the Ancient Greek Philosophers.

Cutting a long story short, Plato believed that all knowledge could be reasoned; Aristotle that knowledge relied upon empirical observation and measurement.

This does bring up one interesting anomaly. Strictly speaking, the great physicists, such as Einstein and Stephen Hawking, are not scientists. They generate sweeping and elegant theories and mathematical models to describe the universe and the very nature of time, but measure nothing.

In reality, they are mathematicians, occupying their own particular niche, and they should properly be referred to as theoreticians.

Still, they are still commonly referred to as scientists and do touch upon the scientific method in that any theory they have can be destroyed by a single scrap of empirical evidence.

The Scientific Method Relies Upon Data

The scientific method uses some type of measurement to analyze results, feeding these findings back into theories of what we know about the world. There are two major ways of obtaining data, through measurement and observation. These are generally referred to as quantitative and qualitative measurements.

Quantitative measurements are generally associated with what are known as ‘hard' sciences, such as physics, chemistry and astronomy. They can be gained through experimentation or through observation.

For Example:

  • At the end of the experiment, 50% of the bacteria in the sample treated with penicillin were left alive.
  • The experiment showed that the moon is 384403 km away from the earth.
  • The pH of the solution was 7.1

As a rule of thumb, a quantitative unit has a unit of measurement after it, some scientifically recognized (SI) or SI derived unit. Percentages and numbers fall into this category.

Qualitative measurements are based upon observation and they generally require some type of numerical manipulation or scaling.

As an example, a social scientist interviewing drug addicts in a series of case studies, and documenting what they see, is not really performing science, although the research is still useful.

However, if he performs some sort of manipulation, such as devising a scale to assess the intensity of the response to specific questions, then he generates qualitative results.

  • On average, the subjects showed an anxiety level of four.
  • 91% of respondents stated that they preferred Hershey bars.

Generally, qualitative measurements are arbitrary, a scale designed to measure abstract responses and constructs. Measuring anxiety, preference, pain and aggression are some examples of concepts measured qualitatively. For a small group of long-established tests, the results are often regarded as quantitative, such as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Quotient).

Both types of data are extremely important for understanding the world around us and the majority of scientists use both types of data.

A medical researcher might design experiments to test the effectiveness of a drug, using a placebo to contrast.

However, she might perform in depth case studies on a few of the subjects, a pilot study, to ensure that her experiment has no problems.

The Scientific Method is Intellectual and Visionary

Science requires vision, and the ability to observe the implications of results. Collecting data is part of the process, and it also needs to be analyzed and interpreted.

However, the visionary part of science lies in relating the findings back into the real world. Even pure sciences, which are studied for their own sake rather than any practical application, are visionary and have wider goals.

The process of relating findings to the real world is known as induction, or inductive reasoning, and is a way of relating the findings to the universe around us.

For example, Wegener was the first scientist to propose the idea of continental drift. He noticed that the same fossils were found on both sides of the Atlantic, in old rocks, and that the continental shelves of Africa and South America seemed to fit together.

He induced that they were once joined together, rather than joined by land bridges, and faced ridicule for his challenge to the established paradigm. Over time, the accumulated evidence showed that he was, in fact, correct and he was shown to be a true visionary.

Reasoning Cycle - Scientific Research

Science Uses Experiments to Test Predictions

This process of induction and generalization allows scientists to make predictions about how they think that something should behave, and design an experiment to test it.

This experiment does not always mean setting up rows of test tubes in the lab or designing surveys. It can also mean taking measurements and observing the natural world.

Wegener's ideas, whilst denigrated by many scientists, aroused the interest of a few. They began to go out and look for other evidence that the continents moved around the Earth.

From Wegener's initial idea of continents floating through the ocean floor, scientists now understand, through a process of prediction and measurement, the process of plate tectonics.

The exact processes driving the creation of new crust and the subduction of others are still not fully understood but, almost 100 years after Wegener's idea, scientists still build upon his initial work.

Systematic and Methodical

Scientists are very conservative in how they approach results and they are naturally very skeptical.

It takes more than one experiment to change the way that they think, however loud the headlines, and any results must be retested and repeated until a solid body of evidence is built up. This process ensures that researchers do not make mistakes or purposefully manipulate evidence.

In Wegener's case, his ideas were not accepted until after his death, when the amount of evidence supporting continental drift became irrefutable.

This process of changing the current theories, called a paradigm shift, is an integral part of the scientific method. Most groundbreaking research, such as Einstein's Relativity or Mendel's Genetics, causes a titanic shift in the prevailing scientific thought.

Summary

The scientific method has evolved, over many centuries, to ensure that scientists make meaningful discoveries, founded upon logic and reason rather than emotion.

The exact process varies between scientific disciplines, but they all follow the above principle of observe - predict - test - generalize.

Reasoning Cycle - Scientific Research

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Citation: 

(Jun 26, 2009). What is the Scientific Method?. Retrieved Apr 24, 2014 from Explorable.com: https://explorable.com/what-is-the-scientific-method