Scientific Method (Encyclopedia of Science)
The term scientific method refers in general to the procedures that scientists follow in obtaining true statements about the natural world. As it happens, scientists actually use all manner of procedures to obtain the information they want. Some of those procedures are not very objective, not very formal, and not very systematic. Still, the "ground rules" by which science tends to operate are distinctive and very different from those by which "true statements" are produced in philosophy, the arts, history, ethics, and other fields of human endeavor.
"The scientific method"
Many science textbooks begin with an exposition of a system of thought that, at least in the ideal, describes the way scientists work. The system is actually a cyclical process, one in which it is impossible to say where the whole process begins.
Certainly one element in the process is the recognition of a problem or the desire to know something specific about the natural world. For example, one might wonder whether an airplane flies better with narrow wings or broad wings. In most cases, a scientist poses a question such as this in terms of a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an idea phrased in the form of a statement that can be tested by observation and/or experimentation. In this example, the hypothesis might be: "Airplanes with broad wings fly better than airplanes with narrow...
(The entire section is 1420 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Scientific Method (Science Experiments)
Using the Scientific Method: What are the mystery powders?
Design Your Own Experiment
When you encounter a problem, how do you solve it? Do you consider what you already know about the problem, think of a possible answer, and then see if your answer is correct? If so, you are using the scientific method. The scientific method is a way of carefully collecting evidence about a question or problem, using that evidence to form a possible answer, and then testing the answer to see if it is accurate.
You can use this method as a tool for solving problems in science class and in many other areas of your life. For example, it could help you figure out why your pencils keep disappearing, how to wrap your sandwich so it does not dry out by lunchtime, or why your dog no longer likes his favorite food.
The scientific method has six steps, described below. They will help you solve all kinds of problems, in and out of school.
- Step 1: State a problem or ask a question.
- Step 2: Gather background...
(The entire section is 3631 words.)
Scientific Method (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
An approach to research that relies on observation and data collection, hypothesis testing, and the falsifiability of ideas.
The scientific method involves a wide array of approaches and is better seen as an overall perspective rather than a single, specific method. The scientific method that has been adopted was initially based on the concept of positivism, which involved the search for general descriptive laws that could be used to predict natural phenomena. Once predictions were possible, scientists could attempt to control the occurrence of those phenomena. Subsequently, scientists developed underlying explanations and theories. In the case of psychology, the goal would be to describe, to predict, then to control behavior, with knowledge based on underlying theory.
Although the positivist approach to science has undergone change and scientists are continually redefining the philosophy of science, the premises on which it was based continue to be the mainstream of current research. One of the prime requisites of a scientific approach is falsifiability; that is, a theory is seen as scientific if it makes predictions that can be demonstrated as true or false. Another critical element of the scientific method is that it relies on empiricism, that is, observation and data collection.
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Scientific Method (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Scientific Method (World of Earth Science)
Scientific thought aims to make correct predictions about events in nature. Although the predictive nature of scientific thought may not at first always be apparent, a little reflection usually reveals the predictive nature of any scientific activity. Just as the engineer who designs a bridge ensures that it will withstand the forces of nature, so the scientist considers the ability of any new scientific model to hold up under scientific scrutiny as new scientific data become available.
It is often said that the scientist attempts to understand nature. Ultimately, understanding something means being able to predict its behavior. Scientists, therefore, usually agree that events are not understandable unless they are predictable. Although the word "science" describes many activities, the notion of prediction or predictability is always implied when the word is used.
Until the seventeenth century, scientific prediction simply amounted to observing the changing events of the world, noting any regularities, and making predictions based upon those regularities. The Irish philosopher and bishop George Berkeley (1685753) was the first to rethink this notion of predictability.
Berkeley noted that each person experiences directly only the signals of his or her five senses. An individual can infer that a natural world exists as the source of his sensations, but he or she can never know the natural world directly. One can only know it through one's senses. In everyday life, people tend to forget that their knowledge of the external world comes to them through their five senses.
The physicists of the nineteenth century described the atom as though they could see it directly. Their descriptions changed constantly as new data arrived, and these physicists had to remind themselves that they were only working with a mental picture built with fragmentary information.
In 1913, Niels Bohr used the term model for his published description of the hydrogen atom. This term is now used to characterize theories developed long before Bohr's time. Essentially, a model implies some correspondence between the model itself and its object. A single correspondence is often enough to provide a very useful model, but it should never be forgotten that the intent of creating the model is to make predictions.
There are many types of models. A conceptual model refers to a mental picture of a model that is introspectively present when one thinks about it. A geometrical model refers to diagrams or drawings that are used to describe a model. A mathematical model refers to equations or other relationships that provide quantitative predictions.
New models are not constructed from observations of facts and previous models; they are postulated. That is to say, the statements that describe a model are assumed and predictions are made from them. The predictions are checked against the measurements or observations of actual events in nature. If the predictions prove accurate, the model is said to be validated. If the predictions fail, the model is discarded or adjusted until it can make accurate predictions.
The formulation of the scientific model is subject to no limitations in technique; the scientist is at liberty to use any method he can come up with, conscious or unconscious, to develop a model. Validation of the model, however, follows a single, recurrent pattern. Note that this pattern does not constitute a method for making new discoveries in science; rather it provides a way of validating new models after they have been postulated. This method is called the scientific method.
The scientific method 1) postulates a model consistent with existing experimental observations; 2) checks the predictions of this model against further observations or measurements; 3) adjusts or discards the model to agree with new observations or measurements.
The third step leads back to the second, so, in principle, the process continues without end. (Such a process is said to be recursive.) No assumptions are made about the reality of the model. The model that ultimately prevails may be the simplest, most convenient, or most satisfying model; but it will certainly be the one that best explains those problems that scientists have come to regard as most acute.
Paradigms are models that are unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing scientific models. A paradigm must be sufficiently open-ended to leave many problems for its adherents to solve. The paradigm is thus a theory from which springs a coherent tradition of scientific research. Examples of such traditions include Ptolemaic astronomy, Copernican astronomy, Aristotelian dynamics, Newtonian dynamics, etc.
To be accepted as a paradigm, a model must be better than its competitors, but it need not and cannot explain all the facts with which it is confronted. Paradigms acquire status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that scientists have come to regard as acute. Normal science consists of extending the knowledge of those facts that are key to understanding the paradigm, and in further articulating the paradigm itself.
Scientific thought should in principle be cumulative; a new model should be capable of explaining everything the old model did. In some sense, the old model may appear to be a special case of the new model.
The descriptive phase of normal science involves the acquisition of experimental data. Much of science involves classification of these facts. Classification systems constitute abstract models, and it is often the case that examples are found that do not precisely fit in classification schemes. Whether these anomalies warrant reconstruction of the classification system depends on the consensus of the scientists involved.
Predictions that do not include numbers are called qualitative predictions. Only qualitative predictions can be made from qualitative observations. Predictions that include numbers are called quantitative predictions. Quantitative predictions are often expressed in terms of probabilities, and may contain estimates of the accuracy of the prediction.
The Greeks constructed a model in which the stars were lights fastened to the inside of a large, hollow sphere (the sky), and the sphere rotated about the earth as a center. This model predicts that all of the stars will remain fixed in position relative to each other. However, certain bright stars were found to wander about the sky. These stars were called planets (from the Greek word for wanderer). The model had to be modified to account for motion of the planets. In Ptolemy's A.D.10070) model of the solar system, each planet moves in a small circular orbit, and the center of the small circle moves in a large circle around the earth as center.
Copernicus (1473543) assumed the Sun was near the center of a system of circular orbits in which the earth and planets moved with fair regularity. Like many new scientific ideas, Copernicus' idea was initially greeted as nonsense, but over time, it eventually took hold. One of the factors that led astronomers to accept Copernicus' model was that Ptolemaic astronomy could not explain a number of astronomical discoveries.
In the case of Copernicus, the problems of calendar design and astrology evoked questions among contemporary scientists. In fact, Copernicus's theory did not lead directly to any improvement in the calendar. Copernicus's theory suggested that the planets should be like the earth, that Venus should show phases, and that the universe should be vastly larger than previously supposed. Sixty years after Copernicus's death, when the telescope suddenly displayed mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus, and an immense number of previously unsuspected stars, the new theory received a great many converts, particularly from non-astronomers.
The change from the Ptolemaic model to the Copernican model is a particularly famous case of a paradigm change. As the Ptolemaic system evolved between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., it eventually became highly successful in predicting changing positions of the stars and planets. No other ancient system had performed as well. In fact, the Ptolemaic astronomy is still used today as an engineering approximation. Ptolemy's predictions for the planets were as good as Copernicus's predictions. With respect to planetary position and precession of the equinoxes, however, the predictions made with Ptolemy's model were not quite consistent with the best available observations. Given a particular inconsistency, astronomers for many centuries were satisfied to make minor adjustments in the Ptolemaic model to account for it. Eventually, it became apparent that the web of complexity resulting from the minor adjustments was increasing more rapidly than the accuracy, and a discrepancy corrected in one place was likely to show up in another place.
Tycho Brahe (1546601) made a lifelong study of the planets. In the course of doing so, he acquired the data needed to demonstrate certain shortcomings in Copernicus's model. But it was left to Johannes Kepler (1571630), using Brahe's data after the latter's death, to come up with a set of laws consistent with the data. It is worth noting that the quantitative superiority of Kepler's astronomical tables to those computed from the Ptolemaic theory was a major factor in the conversion of many astronomers to the Copernican theory.
In fact, simple quantitative telescopic observations indicate that the planets do not quite obey Kepler's laws, and Isaac Newton (1642727) proposed a theory that shows why they should not. To redefine Kepler's laws, Newton had to neglect all gravitational attraction except that between individual planets and the sun. Since planets also attract each other, only approximate agreement between Kepler's laws and telescopic observation could be expected.
Newton thus generalized Kepler's laws in the sense that they could now describe the motion of any object moving in any sort of path. It is now known that objects moving almost as fast as the speed of light require a modification of Newton's laws, but such objects were unknown in Newton's day.
Newton's first law says that a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an external force. His second law states quantitatively what happens when a force is applied to an object. The third law states that if a body A exerts a force F on body B, then body B exerts on body A a force that is equal in magnitude but opposite in direction to force F. Newton's fourth law is his law of gravitational attraction.
Newton's success in predicting quantitative astronomical observations was probably the single most important factor leading to acceptance of his theory over more reasonable but uniformly qualitative competitors.
It is often pointed out that Newton's model includes Kepler's laws as a special case. This permits scientists to say they understand Kepler's model as a special case of Newton's model. But when one considers the case of Newton's laws and relativistic theory, the special case argument does not hold up. Newton's laws can only be derived from Albert Einstein's (1876955) relativistic theory if the laws are reinterpreted in a way that would have only been possible after Einstein's work.
The variables and parameters that in Einstein's theory represent spatial position, time, mass, etc. appear in Newton's theory, and there still represent space, time, and mass. But the physical natures of the Einsteinian concepts differ from those of the Newtonian model. In Newtonian theory, mass is conserved; in Einstein's theory, mass is convertible with energy. The two ideas converge only at low velocities, but even then they are not exactly the same.
Scientific theories are often felt to be better than their predecessors because they are better instruments for solving puzzles and problems, but also for their superior abilities to represent what nature is really like. In this sense, it is often felt that successive theories come ever closer to representing truth, or what is "really there." Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science whose writings include the seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962), found this idea implausible. He pointed out that although Newton's mechanics improve on Ptolemy's mechanics, and Einstein's mechanics improve on Newton's as instruments for puzzle solving, there does not appear to be any coherent direction of development. In some important respects, Professor Kuhn has argued, Einstein's general theory of relativity is closer to early Greek ideas than relativistic or ancient Greek ideas are to Newton's.
See also Historical geology; History of exploration I (Ancient and classical); History of exploration II (Age of exploration); History of exploration III (Modern era)