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What's the Meaning of "Science" and the "Scientific Method"?

How can we be sure of what we know? Take a trip through how scientists figure out what we know.

What is that? Why is it doing that? How does a system perform this action? Humans use science when we want to interrogate the workings of the natural world. We are incredibly curious creatures. Science is a way of studying physical and natural phenomena through observation and experimentation. It is a tool humans can use to have a greater understanding of the universe, our planet, and ourselves.

Science and the scientific method

Humans have been doing science for tens of thousands of years. Throughout this rich history, science has been conducted a number of different ways, but it largely had the same fundamentals: Trial and error, adding to what we learn, and developing new theories and methods. Humans developed full writing systems within the last four thousand years, which expanded our ability to communicate and preserve information. Within a thousand years of developing writing, we see the development of more robust systems of philosophical thought around the world. Because we were interrogating reality and human experience in a more formalized way, we also see the groundwork laid down for a more formalized way to do science. Generally laying down the intellectual framework to answer the question “How do we know what we know?”. 

To help us answer that question, a greek philosopher and a Muslim mathematician were instrumental in helping communicate the importance of observation and experimentation. Aristotle gave us one of the first systematic approaches to use scientific inquiry to interrogate nature. He used a purely empirical approach, one relying on observations of the natural world with our senses, and then would use reasoning to interpret what we see. Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in the West as Alhazen, is among the first people who argued in favor of experimentation, contradicting contemporarily held ideals dominated by Aristotelian philosophy.

Fleuron from book
Fleuron from book. Source: Desaguliers, J. T. (John Theophilus)/Wikimedia commons

Throughout this time, we continued to refine and add different philosophical frameworks to help us understand how to know things. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, they summarize, “The basic aim and method of inquiry identified here can be seen as a theme running throughout the next two millennia of reflection on the correct way to seek after knowledge: Carefully observe nature and then seek rules or principles which explain or predict its operation.” By the 16th century, the intellectual ground was laid for the scientific revolution. Over the next two centuries, science closer as we understand it today was established.

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Science has continued to branch out into a dizzying number of fields and niches. There are many ways to conduct a scientific enquiry in an epistemologically consistent way. Some scientific fields have different epistemic requirements from each other; depending on what kind of science you're doing, the types of approaches you can take, and the standards you need. Broadly, these approaches are what scientists refer to when they talk about the “scientific method.”

The scientific method

When most people hear about the scientific method, they recall a multistep process they were taught in school. Though scientific investigation can loosely follow the steps of the scientific method, it doesn’t have to. The scientific method isn’t an unbreakable law that defines what is and isn’t science.

In The Nature of Science in Science Education, William McComas explains that the modern version of the multi-step scientific method might have originated after a 1945 paper was published detailing some of the things scientists do when they are conducting investigations. From there, people refined the list, put it in what seems to be a logical order, and the newly minted scientific method made its way into textbooks and common knowledge. McComas continued to explain his view on the true scientific method, “Close inspection will reveal that scientists approach and solve problems with imagination, creativity, prior knowledge, and perseverance. These, of course, are the same methods used by all effective problem-solvers. The lesson to be learned is that science is no different from other human endeavors when puzzles are investigated.”

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Keeping in mind that observation and replication are at the core of science, the scientific method is one way to perform scientific investigation. It provides a basic framework of a way we can acquire information and test reality. However, the "scientific method" is not set in stone — there are many different ways to perform scientific exploration.

What are the steps of the scientific method?

What's the Meaning of "Science" and the "Scientific Method"?
This image describes the Scientific Method as a cyclic/iterative process of continuous improvement. Source: ArchonMagnus/Wikimedia Commons

Step one: Ask a question

The process of discovery begins with curiosity. People tapping into that inner human yearning to learn more about this place we call home. For thousands of years, humans have embarked on this journey by asking questions. Generally, we’ll use questions that start by asking how, what, when, where, which, or why to interrogate the interesting thing we noticed — including things we have noticed in others' scientific endeavors. Asking a good question is very important because it lays the framework for your approach to answering it. There are lots of ways to ask a good question. Generally, a good question is one that is specific and which can be analyzed with experimentation.

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Examples:

Do the planets orbit the Earth or the Sun?

Do objects of different masses fall at the same rate?

Do aliens exist?

Step 2: Literature review

Now that your curiosity has been piqued, it’s good to see what other people have been doing in this area. Humans have been conducting scientific investigation for thousands of years, and we’ve gotten a lot better at documenting and discussing it over the last several centuries. All of us working together in a chain stretching through the millennia to advance our understanding of the world. Sir Issac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” During this phase, it’s important to collect as much information as you can so you can build a proper foundation for your own research and experimentation, and see what others have already done to answer your question, or similar questions. Perhaps an answer already exists — or perhaps someone has gotten part of the way there. The next step is crucial and one of the most foundational aspects of science: Establishing a good hypothesis.

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Step 3: Establishing a hypothesis

What's the Meaning of "Science" and the "Scientific Method"?
The Allen Telescope Array at the University of California, Berkeley to construct a radio interferometer that is dedicated to astronomical observations and a simultaneous search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Source Allen Telescope Array/Wikimedia Commons

A hypothesis is a type of educated prediction, a statement about what you think is happening. A good hypothesis can be tested and is falsifiable. Being able to test the hypothesis means we can create conditions to examine it through experimentation or observation. Having a hypothesis that is falsifiable means it is possible to contradict it, or prove it wrong, in an experiment. It is possible to conduct scientific exploration without having a falsifiable hypothesis, but you have to be more careful with how you interpret your data.

Examples:

A sun-centered model will provide more accuracy about the movement of the planets than an earth-centered model?

If I drop two balls, one twice the mass of the other, the heavier ball will fall twice as fast as the lighter ball?

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If I listen for narrow-band radio transmissions is space, would that indicate the existence of technically sophisticated beings elsewhere in the galaxy?

Step 4: Test your hypothesis through experimentation

What's the Meaning of "Science" and the "Scientific Method"?
Source: Rursus/Wikimedia Commons

Having a good hypothesis is as important as designing a good experiment. Your experiment should be a fair test of your hypothesis to allow you to collect useful data. It should be replicable, allowing yourself and others to repeat the experiment with similar results. This ability for others to get the same results by conducting the same experiment using similar equipment and conditions is a core element of science. This is how we verify the accuracy of results. While conducting an experiment, you might be able to adjust different variables to see if it affects the result. You should only change one variable at a time and document your actions.

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Examples:

Develop a model with all of the planets and Earth orbiting the sun and see if you can achieve the apparent “backwards” motion of the planets in the sky.

Conduct a series of drop tests where you drop two objects, one twice as heavy as the other, from a variety of heights

Use radio telescopes to survey red dwarf stars, which have many characteristics that make them prime locales in the search for intelligent life.

Step 5: Analyze your data and interpret your results

What's the Meaning of "Science" and the "Scientific Method"?
Apollo 15 Hasselblad image. Falcon feather and hammer dropped by David Scott in his gravity demonstration. Source: Project Apollo Archive/Wikimedia Commons

This is the fun part of science, when you look at your data and try to figure out what actually happened and whether it supports or refutes what you thought would happen — your hypothesis. It is important to be honest with the data during this step and not to manipulate it to say something it doesn’t. Obviously, the data could support the hypothesis or it could refute it, but it could also do neither. From here, you’ll cycle through steps three through five as you attempt to collect better data and fine tune your hypothesis until you have a significant result. It is also important to remember that even if an experiment fails to support the hypothesis, it adds to the total knowledge about a question.

Examples:

Because the planets orbit at different rates, some move faster than others allowing them to “pass” each other from the perspective of an observer on a point on a flat plane. This apparent retrograde motion can be explained more accurately by the relative motion of each planet rather than epicycles. This supports the hypothesis that a sun-centered system is a better explanation than an Earth-centered one.

No matter the height you conduct the drop test, both objects fall at the same rate and hit the ground at the same time. This refutes the hypothesis that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones.

After listening for a year, you have been unable to pick up an alien radio signal. This refutes the idea that finding the signals would be easy. Though it may mean there aren’t any radio signals to detect, it also doesn’t rule it out. Do you need a more sensitive radio receiver? Is there an explanation for why radio communications might be rarer in the universe than we assumed? Are there even radio signals to detect?

Step 6: Present your findings

Now you tell everyone what you did. Depending on the area of science in which you are researching, there are different ways to communicate your findings. You could publish them in a scientific journal, present them at a school science fair, or communicate them through a talk in front of other scientists. One main goal of science is to help inform others about how the world works, so they can test and build on your work. To achieve this, information is important, and the more good data we have the better our understanding. Information wants to be free, scientific results should be open and available to all.

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