The Scientific Method/Introduction to Science
Modern science is broken into so many divergent branches that it's almost inconceivable to think that they are all related. However, despite the varied subject matter, all scientific disciplines are tied together through their use of a common method, the scientific method. The scientific method is mostly a philosophical exercise that is used to refine human knowledge.
Precepts of the Method
Different disciplines may employ the general scientific method in slightly different ways, but the major precepts are the same:
- Any result should be provable. Any person (with the proper training and equipment) must be able to reproduce and verify any scientific result.
- Any scientific theory should enable us to make predictions of future events. The precision of these predictions is a measure of the strength of the theory.
- Falsifiability is an important notion in science and the philosophy of science. For an assertion to be falsifiable it must be logically possible to make an observation or do a physical experiment that would show the assertion to be false. It is important to note that "falsifiable" does not mean false. Some philosophers and scientists, most notably Karl Popper, have asserted that no empirical hypothesis, proposition, or theory can be considered scientific if no observation could be made which might contradict it. Note that if an assertion is falsifiable its negation can be unfalsifiable, and vice-versa. For example, "God does exist" is unfalsifiable, while its negation "God doesn't exist" is falsifiable. Any scientific theory must have criteria under which it is deemed invalid. Should predictions and verifications fail completely, the theory must be abandoned.
- Data needs to be analyzed as a whole or as a representative sample. We cannot pick and choose what data to keep and what to discard. Also, we cannot focus our attention on data that proves or disproves a particular hypothesis, we must account for all data even if it invalidates the hypothesis.
Stages of the Method
We will get into more detail in the following chapters, but the basic steps to the scientific method are as follows:
- Observe a natural phenomenon
- Make a hypothesis about the phenomenon
- Test the hypothesis
Once the hypothesis has been tested, if it is true we can work to find more evidence, or we can find counter-evidence. If the hypothesis is false, we create a new hypothesis and try again.
The important thing to note here is that the scientific process is never-ending. No result is ever considered to be perfect, and at no point do we stop looking at evidence.
Example: Newton and Einstein
Isaac Newton, a brilliant physicist, developed a number of laws of motion and mechanics that we still use today. For many many years the laws of Newton were considered to be absolute fact. Many years later, a physicist known as Albert Einstein noticed that in certain situations Newton's laws were incorrect. Especially in cases where the object under consideration is moving at speed nearing the speed of light.Einstein helped to create a new theory, the theory of relativity, that corrected those errors. Even though Einstein was a brilliant scientist, modern physicists are developing new theories because there are some small errors in Einstein's theories. Each new generation of physicists helps to reduce the errors of the previous generations.
The Complete Method
The complete scientific method, as it is generally known is:
- Define the question
- Gather data and observations
- Form hypothesis
- Perform experiment and collect data
- Interpret data and draw conclusions
Notice that the first step is to define the question. In other words, we can not look for an answer if we do not know what the question is first. Once we have the question, we need to observe the situation and gather appropriate data. We need to gather all data, not just selectively acquire data to support a particular hypothesis, or to make analysis more simple.
Once we have our data, we can analyze it to determine a hypothesis. In many cases a hypothesis is a mathematical relationship between the data points. However, it is not necessary to use mathematics at any point with the scientific method. Once we have our hypothesis, we need to test it. Testing is a complicated process, and will be the focus of the second section in this book. We collect data from our tests, and attempt to fit that data to our hypothesis. At this point, we need to ask, is the hypothesis right or wrong? Or, if it is not completely wrong nor completely right, we need to ask if this hypothesis is better then the previous hypothesis? If this hypothesis is not quite right, we can modify it and perform the tests again.
Once we have completed tests and verified our hypothesis, we need to draw conclusions from that. What does our hypothesis mean, in the bigger picture? What kinds of relationships between the data can we find? What further problems does this hypothesis cause? What would it take to prove this hypothesis wrong?