Scientific method

Model of DNA with David Deutsch, proponent of invariant scientific explanations. See § DNA example below.

The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method, as distinguished from a definitive series of steps applicable to all scientific enterprises.[1][2][3]

Though diverse models for the scientific method are available, there is in general 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.[4]

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.[5][6] 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.[7]

The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from a hypothesis.[8] 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.[9]Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always in the same order.[10][11] Some philosophers and scientists have argued that there is no scientific method; they include physicist Lee Smolin[12] 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."[13]


Aristotle, 384–322 BCE. "As regards his method, Aristotle is recognized as the inventor of scientific method because of his refined analysis of logical implications contained in demonstrative discourse, which goes well beyond natural logic and does not owe anything to the ones who philosophized before him." – Riccardo Pozzo[14]
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]

Important debates in the history of science concern rationalism, especially as advocated by René Descartes; inductivism and/or empiricism, as argued for by Francis Bacon, and rising to particular prominence with Isaac Newton and his followers; and hypothetico-deductivism, which came to the fore in the early 19th century.

The term "scientific method" emerged in the 19th century, when a significant institutional development of science was taking place and terminologies establishing clear boundaries between science and non-science, such as "scientist" and "pseudoscience", appeared.[19] Throughout the 1830s and 1850s, by which time Baconianism was popular, naturalists like William Whewell, John Herschel, John Stuart Mill engaged in debates over "induction" and "facts" and were focused on how to generate knowledge.[19] In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a debate over realism vs. antirealism was conducted as powerful scientific theories extended beyond the realm of the observable.[20]

The term "scientific method" came into popular use in the twentieth century, popping up in dictionaries and science textbooks, although there was little scientific consensus over its meaning.[19] Although there was a growth through the middle of the twentieth century, by the end of that century numerous influential philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend had questioned the universality of the "scientific method" and in doing so largely replaced the notion of science as a homogeneous and universal method with that of it being a heterogeneous and local practice.[19] In particular, Paul Feyerabend argued against there being any universal rules of science.[20] Historian of science Daniel Thurs maintains that the scientific method is a myth or, at best, an idealization.[21]

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