The Scientific Method – A Primer

I’ve been discussing the scientific method with people lately. There seems to be a real lack of understanding of just what the scientific method is and how it is used. So to help dispel the confusion, I’m going to try to give a brief explanation of just what the scientific method entails. I strongly urge you to read the entire Wikipedia entry on the scientific method here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

Definition of the scientific method:

According to Wikipedia:

“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

And from the Miriam Webster’s dictionary:

“ Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

Now that we have our definition, let’s take a walk through the process.

1) I identify a problem that I want to solve. Example: Do objects of different masses fall at different rates?

2) I collect data through observation. Example: I notice two apples of different sizes fall from the same tree at the same time and the both seem to hit the ground at the same time.

3) I generate a hypothesis. Example: All bodies fall at the same rate regardless of their mass in a vacuum (this is to exclude friction cause by air molecules).

4) I devise an experiment to test my hypothesis under controlled conditions. Example: I make an electronic device that releases a ball from a predetermined height. This takes place in a clear tube that in which a vacuum has been created. A high speed camera records the falling ball to accurately time it’s fall. The test is repeated with two balls of different masses.

5) I conduct the test. Result: Both balls cover the same distance in the exact same amount of time.

6) Conclusion: Two bodies of different masses fall at the same rate in a vacuum.

So, I have confirmed my hypothesis by experimentation and observation.

This is just the beginning of what normally happens in the scientific community. Now, I would submit my finding to a peer reviewed journal which allows others to comment on it. They will try to find errors in the methodology of the experiment, or in the analysis of the data. Others will try to reproduce my experimental results. If my conclusions survive this process then the hypothesis will be considered a valid support for a theory of falling bodies. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Now, even if my hypothesis is widely accepted, further experimental data or observations that contradict it may force me to revise my hypothesis or even throw it out completely.

This is how the scientific method works. This is why science can’t claim to have all the answers or even definitive answers for what we think we know, because something may come along that force us to rethink our theories.

People who use the scientific method understand that we don’t know everything, because if we did, there would be no need for hypotheses or theories. The real challenge and joy of science is that there is always something new to learn, new hypotheses to test, new conclusions to draw. Science is a never ending pursuit to find better answers to how the world we live in works.

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