What is the Scientific Method?

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Science is best perceived as a systematic way of thinking that is based upon an epistemology underpinned by reason, evidence, and logic. It is a tool for understanding the social and natural world and constitutes the body of knowledge of these worlds. Science is not perfect, nor does it pretend to be especially because, as we shall see shortly, the enterprise is constantly updated and open to revision, correction, and even rejection.

The scientific method generally involves generating and testing a hypothesis, using data gathered through experiment to update and refine the hypothesis, and, ideally, reaching a generalizable theory to explain why the hypothesis is true. The scientific method can be broken down into the following steps:

1. Observation – This is the beginning step that requires one to make observations about the world. This could be an unexpected observation made in fieldwork, or in the laboratory, or it could even be something one observes within her everyday experience. For example, one might note that a pear left in a fruit bowl goes off (or rotten) quicker than if it is refrigerated.

2. Question – The subsequent step has the researcher turn the observation into a question. Using our analogy of the pear we might ask: “Why does the pear go rotten quicker in the fruit bowl than in the refrigerator?”

3. Research – This step assists the investigator in finding out if other researchers have asked the same or similar question(s). The idea is that such data might assist the researcher herself.

4. Formulate a Hypothesis – The researcher now attempts to create a testable hypothesis by making a prediction as to what is causing an occurrence. A hypothesis might be: “The cooler temperature in the refrigerator stops pears from going rotten.”

5. Develop Testable Predictions – Predictions need to follow logically from a hypothesis, be specific, and be open to testing through experimentation. For instance, “If temperature affects pear ripening, a pear kept at 20 degrees Celsius will go rotten quicker that one kept at 6 degrees Celsius.”

6. Gather Experimental Data – The researcher now gathers data to see if it is consistent with the hypothesis. This requires that the experiment is carefully and thoughtfully designed so as to ensure that there are no explanations for the outcome other than the one the researcher is interested in.

7. Analyze the Data – This step requires that the researcher analyzes the data statistically to ensure that the data is not a result of random fluctuation. The ideal is for experiments to use as large a sample size as is feasible.

8. Hypothesis Supported – If the results concur with the predictions, confidence in the hypothesis increases. Hypotheses can never be proven as future experiments and tests could refute it. However, the more empirical and experimental support one has for a hypothesis the more confident one can be in it.

9. Refine, Alter, or Reject – Alternately, if the results do not support the predictions it is likely an indication that one needs to redo the experiment or refine, alter, or reject the hypothesis.

10. Peer Review – This is the final step in the scientific method and it involves researchers whose writings about their findings are reviewed by other experts in the field. These reviewers are looking for problems in the experiment’s method or the conclusions of it. If the experiment is accepted then the study is published and becomes available for others to read.

It is important to remember that the scientific enterprise is an ongoing process. Researchers are constantly producing new data and theories. Scientists are aware that their work is likely to be superseded by future experiments and tests.

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