Scientific method

The scientific method is a never ending cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning

The Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the scientific method as "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".[1] Experiments are a procedure designed to test hypotheses. Experiments are an important tool of the scientific method.[2][3] To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry is commonly based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.[4]

Though there are diverse models for the scientific method available, in general there is a continuous process that includes observations about the natural world. People are naturally inquisitive, so they often come up with questions about things they see or hear, and they often develop ideas or hypotheses about why things are the way they are. The best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be tested in various ways. The most conclusive testing of hypotheses comes from reasoning based on carefully controlled experimental data. Depending on how well additional tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require refinement, alteration, expansion or even rejection. If a particular hypothesis becomes very well supported, a general theory may be developed.[5]

Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, they are frequently the same from one to another. The process of the scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments or empirical observations based on those predictions.[6][7] A hypothesis is a conjecture, based on knowledge obtained while seeking answers to the question. The hypothesis might be very specific, or it might be broad. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments or studies. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, implying that it is possible to identify a possible outcome of an experiment or observation that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully tested.[8]

The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from a hypothesis.[9] Experiments can take place anywhere from a garage to CERN's Large Hadron Collider. There are difficulties in a formulaic statement of method, however. Though the scientific method is often presented as a fixed sequence of steps, it represents rather a set of general principles.[10] Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always in the same order.[11][12] Some philosophers and scientists have argued that there is no scientific method; they include physicist Lee Smolin[13] and philosopher Paul Feyerabend (in his Against Method). Robert Nola and Howard Sankey remark that "For some, the whole idea of a theory of scientific method is yester-year's debate, the continuation of which can be summed up as yet more of the proverbial deceased equine castigation. We beg to differ."[14]

Overview

The DNA example below is a synopsis of this method
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), 965–1039 Iraq. A polymath, considered by some to be the father of modern scientific methodology, due to his emphasis on experimental data and reproducibility of its results.[15][16]
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). "Kepler shows his keen logical sense in detailing the whole process by which he finally arrived at the true orbit. This is the greatest piece of Retroductive reasoning ever performed." – C. S. Peirce, c. 1896, on Kepler's reasoning through explanatory hypotheses[17]
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). According to Albert Einstein, "All knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics – indeed, of modern science altogether."[18]

The scientific method is the process by which science is carried out.[19] As in other areas of inquiry, science (through the scientific method) can build on previous knowledge and develop a more sophisticated understanding of its topics of study over time.[20][21][22][23][24][25] This model can be seen to underlay the scientific revolution.[26] One thousand years ago, Alhazen argued the importance of forming questions and subsequently testing them,[27] an approach which was advocated by Galileo in 1638 with the publication of Two New Sciences.[28] The current method is based on a hypothetico-deductive model[29] formulated in the 20th century, although it has undergone significant revision since first proposed (for a more formal discussion, see below).

Process

The overall process involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments based on those predictions to determine whether the original conjecture was correct.[6] There are difficulties in a formulaic statement of method, however. Though the scientific method is often presented as a fixed sequence of steps, these actions are better considered as general principles.[11] Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always done in the same order. As noted by scientist and philosopher William Whewell (1794–1866), "invention, sagacity, [and] genius"[12] are required at every step.

Formulation of a question

The question can refer to the explanation of a specific observation, as in "Why is the sky blue?" but can also be open-ended, as in "How can I design a drug to cure this particular disease?" This stage frequently involves finding and evaluating evidence from previous experiments, personal scientific observations or assertions, as well as the work of other scientists. If the answer is already known, a different question that builds on the evidence can be posed. When applying the scientific method to research, determining a good question can be very difficult and it will affect the outcome of the investigation.[30]

Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a conjecture, based on knowledge obtained while formulating the question, that may explain any given behavior. The hypothesis might be very specific; for example, Einstein's equivalence principle or Francis Crick's "DNA makes RNA makes protein",[31] or it might be broad; for example, unknown species of life dwell in the unexplored depths of the oceans. A statistical hypothesis is a conjecture about a given statistical population. For example, the population might be people with a particular disease. The conjecture might be that a new drug will cure the disease in some of those 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; for example, that the new drug does nothing and that any cure is caused by chance. Researchers normally want to show that the null hypothesis is false. The alternative hypothesis is the desired outcome, that the drug does better than chance. A final point: a scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, it cannot be meaningfully tested.

Prediction

This step involves determining the logical consequences of the hypothesis. One or more predictions are then selected for further testing. The more unlikely that a prediction would be correct simply by coincidence, then the more convincing it would be if the prediction were fulfilled; evidence is also stronger if the answer to the prediction is not already known, due to the effects of hindsight bias (see also postdiction). Ideally, the prediction must also distinguish the hypothesis from likely alternatives; if two hypotheses make the same prediction, observing the prediction to be correct is not evidence for either one over the other. (These statements about the relative strength of evidence can be mathematically derived using Bayes' Theorem).[32]

Testing

This is an investigation of whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypothesis. Scientists (and other people) test hypotheses by conducting experiments. The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations of the real world agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from a 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.[9] 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. Experiments always depend on several hypotheses, e.g., that the test equipment is working properly, and a failure may be a failure of one of the auxiliary hypotheses. (See the Duhem–Quine thesis.) Experiments can be conducted in a college lab, on a kitchen table, at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, at the bottom of an ocean, on Mars (using one of the working rovers), and so on. Astronomers do experiments, searching for planets around distant stars. Finally, most individual experiments address highly specific topics for reasons of practicality. As a result, evidence about broader topics is usually accumulated gradually.

Analysis

This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding on the next actions to take. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to those of the null hypothesis, to determine which is better able to explain the data. In cases where an experiment is repeated many times, a statistical analysis such as a chi-squared test may be required. 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. Evidence from other scientists and experience are frequently incorporated at any stage in the process. Depending on the complexity of the experiment, many iterations may be required to gather sufficient evidence to answer a question with confidence, or to build up many answers to highly specific questions in order to answer a single broader question.

DNA example

DNA icon (25x25).png The basic elements of the scientific method are illustrated by the following example from the discovery of the structure of DNA:
  • Question: Previous investigation of DNA had determined its chemical composition (the four nucleotides), the structure of each individual nucleotide, and other properties. It had been identified as the carrier of genetic information by the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment in 1944,[33] but the mechanism of how genetic information was stored in DNA was unclear.
  • Hypothesis: Linus Pauling, Francis Crick and James D. Watson hypothesized that DNA had a helical structure.[34]
  • Prediction: If DNA had a helical structure, its X-ray diffraction pattern would be X-shaped.[35][36] This prediction was determined using the mathematics of the helix transform, which had been derived by Cochran, Crick and Vand[37] (and independently by Stokes). This prediction was a mathematical construct, completely independent from the biological problem at hand.
  • Experiment: Rosalind Franklin crystallized pure DNA and performed X-ray diffraction to produce photo 51. The results showed an X-shape.
  • Analysis: When Watson saw the detailed diffraction pattern, he immediately recognized it as a helix.[38][39] He and Crick then produced their model, using this information along with the previously known information about DNA's composition and about molecular interactions such as hydrogen bonds.[40]

The discovery became the starting point for many further studies involving the genetic material, such as the field of molecular genetics, and it was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Each step of the example is examined in more detail later in the article.

Other components

The scientific method also includes other components required even when all the iterations of the steps above have been completed:[41]

Replication

If an experiment cannot be repeated to produce the same results, this implies that the original results might have been in error. As a result, it is common for a single experiment to be performed multiple times, especially when there are uncontrolled variables or other indications of experimental error. For significant or surprising results, other scientists may also attempt to replicate the results for themselves, especially if those results would be important to their own work.[42]

External review

The process of peer review involves evaluation of the experiment by experts, who typically give their opinions anonymously. Some journals request that the experimenter provide lists of possible peer reviewers, especially if the field is highly specialized. Peer review does not certify correctness of the results, only that, in the opinion of the reviewer, the experiments themselves were sound (based on the description supplied by the experimenter). If the work passes peer review, which occasionally may require new experiments requested by the reviewers, it will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The specific journal that publishes the results indicates the perceived quality of the work.[43]

Data recording and sharing

Scientists typically are careful in recording their data, a requirement promoted by Ludwik Fleck (1896–1961) and others.[44] Though not typically required, they might be requested to supply this data to other scientists who wish to replicate their original results (or parts of their original results), extending to the sharing of any experimental samples that may be difficult to obtain.[45]

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