How To: Apply the Scientific Method
Posted by Ian Raugh on Wednesday, 22 April 2009
The scientific method, the most accurate known method for learning about the world, is important but something it seems not all are instructed in how to use. As with all tools, learning its proper use is of immense importance.
1. Observe a phenomenon and question its cause.
Before anything else, you have to first make an observation of something the cause of which is unknown to you. For Newton, this was a falling apple (if one were to accept the story). For Darwin, this was evolution. Once observed, one must question the cause of the phenomenon. This is the most important step of the scientific method as without questioning the cause no hypothesis is made and no knowledge gained.
2. Create falsifiable hypothesis regarding phenomenon’s cause.
Posit a specific cause as resulting in the observed phenomenon, typically in the form of an if-then statement. If you complete an electrical circuit including a power source and light bulb, the light bulb will light up. This step is significant because it allows for an experiment to be designed which will support or falsify the hypothesis. It is important that the hypothesis can be falsified otherwise the hypothesis can not be tested. It is unscientific to create a hypothesis that can not be tested, as it does not allow the rest of the scientific method to take place. Intelligent Design and Creationism have non-falsifiable hypotheses at their core, hence why they are not scientific. Heliocentric theory (that the Earth orbits the Sun) can be falsified by observations of the Earth’s orbit, hence why it is scientific.
3. Attempt to falsify hypothesis.
This is the core of the scientific method because it is what weeds out hypotheses which posit incorrect causes from those which are, at least mostly, correct. The experiment to falsify a hypothesis must follow very strict standards in order to be valid. An experiment must isolate as many variables (things which change from experiment to experiment) as possible and make them controls (things which do not change from experiment to experiment) except for the variable which is the hypothesized cause. This independent variable (which is what the experiment will be designed to have vary) is posited to cause a dependent variable (which should change depending on the independent variable). If the dependent variable does not change due to the independent variable, then the experiment has falsified the hypothesis. It is important to note that one experiment is enough to satisfactoryly falsify a hypothesis, it takes many trails with many variations on the independent variable.
4A. If falsified, repeat 3 and 4 form a new hypothesis.
Falsification is important, but if no steps were taken to make a correct hypothesis then science would come to a screeching halt every time someone posited the wrong cause. One must create a new hypothesis with a different posited cause and attempt again to falsify it.
4B. If verified, perform more tests.
A hypothesis which has not faced sufficient testing will likely not be received well by the scientific community, especially if that hypothesis posits a cause which goes against other hypotheses which have more testing. There is no such thing in science as a hypothesis with too much supporting evidence and it is better to take a while to ensure accuracy than to rush for the sake of not being ‘beaten’ to the discovery.
5. Submit your hypothesis for others to test.
This is a vital part of the scientific method, the peer review process. It is here where other scientists take the time to examine your experiments and results for errors and test your hypothesis again, either falsifying or verifying it. This is what allows science to be free of most human error, every result is questioned and analysed before being considered true.
6. After much verification, promote hypothesis to theory.
This is a landmark for any hypothesis, where a majority of the scientific community agree that the hypothesis accurately reflects the world and thus deserves the distinction of such. The hypothesis of heliocentricity has long since been promoted to heliocentric theory and evolution by natural selection has been given the same honour. The promotion to theory recognizes that a hypothesis has so much evidence behind it that there is left no known reason to doubt it. This is not to say that the theory is 100% certainly true, just that all known evidence suggests that it is true.
7. Apply and continue to refine theory.
This step is how science can continue to develop better and better theories to describe reality and why it is so reliable. With the application of the theory to technology yet more evidence is gained as to the veracity and holes in the theory, allowing it to be refined and applied even more accurately and said to be true with ever greater certainty (but never 100% certainty, which requires faith). The key to science’s success is that it never stops, no scientist is considered infallible (not even someone like Einstein or Darwin), and no idea is considered perfect.
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