What Is The Scientific Method? Definition, Criticisms, And Steps

May 21, 2014 in Humans

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Isaac Newton William Blake

What is the scientific method? Why do people believe in the ideas that “science” puts forward?

The scientific method is a system that attempts to separate the bias of being an observer from the observation — letting ‘reality’ show itself in the simplest possible way. The primary steps of which are: systematic and repeatable observation, exact measurements, experiments, and the invention of and repeated (ideally, nearly endless) testing of theories.

It’s a method of investigation based on what’s termed empirical and measurable evidence. Empirical essentially meaning what can be observed with the senses; and measurable meaning what can be repeatedly quantified in a standardized way.

The essential purpose of science is the creation of theories or ‘hypotheses’ that can consistently and reliably explain or reproduce observed phenomena. The scientific method is the method of creating these reliable and reproducible theories.


Criticisms

One of the primary limitations of the scientific method is that it generally disregards inconsistent processes as processes that are simply not yet understood. This entirely misses — and dismisses as flukes — effects that may be caused by systems or processes that are much larger than the theory may cover. Essentially, the limited scope and rigidity of such over-specialized and controlled environments precludes a deeper, more varied understanding of phenomena.

The most fundamental weakness of the scientific method, though, is its assumption that there are consistent ‘laws’ and a ‘uniformity of process’ in the universe. And throughout the constructs that it has created, including ‘space’ and ‘time’.

As many critics of the scientific method have made note of, the controlled environments and instruments that are used in scientific inquiry only really produce answers that are relevant to those same controlled environments and instruments. Science is fundamentally subjective, there is no way for it be truly ‘objective’. All of its verifications are performed from within itself, and relative — being generally biased towards the types of perspectives that are drawn to the method. To put it plainly, science is focused on the consistently repeatable and reliable, and has a blindspot for what appears to be inconsistent — on the limited and controlled scale that it operates.

You could also, rather effectively, argue that the scientific method — and the ways of thinking/living that it supports — are so thoroughly embedded in the stories and culture of our time that its limitations (and an awareness of other approaches) can not be seen very clear to those within said culture. Precluding any real understanding of what the method itself means (and what its effects are) in a larger context — often a stereotype, and/or a defining characteristic of those involved in the scientific professions, is a lack of awareness or understanding of greater contexts.

(Author’s note: Note that I’m addressing the criticisms of the actual method itself, not the way that it is often (mis)practiced in much modern research.)


Standard Definition

The standard definition of the scientific method, — as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary — is: “A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

You could also say that the purpose of the scientific method is to make reliable predictions — no doubt where much of the great appeal and utility of the method originate.

The making of accurate predictions in a wide range of circumstances, to put it another way. And, perhaps (at its ideal), to glimpse the principles behind the actions/behaviors/effects of a phenomena.


Steps

The most basic (and commonly accepted) steps in the process are:

1. Observation/The Formulation Of A Question

This step is one that most people likely participate in many times everyday — why is something the way that it is ? This stage also includes background research and the evaluation of previous experience/evidence.


2. The Formulation Of A Hypothesis

This is the step whereby a question becomes a possible answer — a conjecture based on previously obtained knowledge/experience that attempts to explain the observed behavior of a part of the world.

A simple example would be if you were to hypothesize that the effects of a certain type of air-pollution particle are linked to the development of asthma in some/certain people.

“Terms commonly associated with statistical hypotheses are null hypothesis and alternative hypothesis. A null hypothesis is the conjecture that the statistical hypothesis is false, eg, that the new drug does nothing and that any cures are due to chance effects. Researchers normally want to show that the null hypothesis is false. The alternative hypothesis is the desired outcome, eg, that the drug does better than chance.”

Something important to note — a scientific hypothesis needs to be falsifiable. What that means, is that there must be a possible outcome (or outcomes) that conflicts with the predictions of the hypothesis — without false-ability things can not be usefully tested using the method.


3. Prediction

This is the step whereby the logical consequences of the hypothesis are explored, determined, and made note of. One or more of these predictions are then chosen for further testing.

Ideally the prediction will be something highly unlikely to be true simply by “coincidence”. The prediction should also be clear enough that it can be distinguished from possible alternatives.


4. Testing

This is where the hypothesis (the product of the mind and experience) is brought into contact with the “real world”. An investigation is undertaken to determine whether or not the world/ things are as predicted by the hypothesis. The typical way this is done is through the use of experiments.

The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations of the real world agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from an hypothesis. If they agree, confidence in the hypothesis increases; otherwise, it decreases. Agreement does not assure that the hypothesis is true; future experiments may reveal problems. Karl Popper advised scientists to try to falsify hypotheses, i.e., to search for and test those experiments that seem most doubtful. Large numbers of successful confirmations are not convincing if they arise from experiments that avoid risk.”

“Experiments should be designed to minimize possible errors, especially through the use of appropriate scientific controls. For example, tests of medical treatments are commonly run as double-blind tests. Test personnel, who might unwittingly reveal to test subjects which samples are the desired test drugs and which are placebos, are kept ignorant of which are which. Such hints can bias the responses of the test subjects. Furthermore, failure of an experiment does not necessarily mean the hypothesis is false.”


5. Analysis

This is the step whereby the results of the experiment are organized, explored, and compared to the previously made predictions. Specifically, the predictions of the hypothesis should be compared to those of the null hypothesis — in order to determine which better explains the data (leaving a lot of room, in many instances, for interpretation and bias…).

If the experiment is repeated multiple times than a statistical analysis I’d often used.

“If the evidence has falsified the hypothesis, a new hypothesis is required; if the experiment supports the hypothesis but the evidence is not strong enough for high confidence, other predictions from the hypothesis must be tested. Once a hypothesis is strongly supported by evidence, a new question can be asked to provide further insight on the same topic.”


Conclusion

That’s a basic overview of what exactly the scientific method is (and isn’t). Hopefully next time you are reading about the latest scientific finding or discovery you have a better understanding of the process behind the work, and/or a better eye to discern the possible limitations of the work.

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