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Introduction to the Scientific Method

Overview of the Scientific Method

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The scientific method is a set of techniques used by the scientific community to investigate natural phenomena by providing an objective framework in which to make scientific inquiry and analyze the data to reach a conclusion about that inquiry.

Steps of the Scientific Method

The goals of the scientific method are uniform, but the method itself is not necessarily formalized among all branches of science. It is most generally expressed as a series of discrete steps, although the exact number and nature of the steps varies depending upon the source. The scientific method is not a recipe, but rather an ongoing cycle that is meant to be applied with intelligence, imagination, and creativity. Frequently, some of these steps will take place simultaneously, in a different order, or be repeated as the experiment is refined, but this is the most general and intuitive sequence. As expressed by Shawn Lawrence Otto in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America:
There is no one "scientific method"; rather, there is a collection of strategies that have proven effective in answering our questions about how things in nature really work.
Depending on the source, the exact steps will be described somewhat differently, but the following are a good general guideline for how the scientific method is often applied.
  1. Ask a question – determine a natural phenomenon (or group of phenomena) that you are curious about and would like to explain or learn more about, then ask a specific question to focus your inquiry.

  2. Research the topic – this step involves learning as much about the phenomenon as you can, including by studying the previous studies of others in the area.

  3. Formulate a hypothesis – using the knowledge you have gained, formulate a hypothesis about a cause or effect of the phenomenon, or the relationship of the phenomenon to some other phenomenon.

  4. Test the hypothesis – plan and carry out a procedure for testing the hypothesis (an experiment) by gathering data.

  5. Analyze the data – use proper mathematical analysis to see if the results of the experiment support or refute the hypothesis.
If the data does not support the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified and re-tested. Frequently, the results of the experiment are compiled in the form of a lab report (for typical classroom work) or a paper (in the case of publishable academic research). It is also common for the results of the experiment to provide an opportunity for more questions about the same phenomenon or related phenomena, which begins the process of inquiry over again with a new question.

Key Elements of the Scientific Method

The goal of the scientific method is to get results that accurately represent the physical processes taking place in the phenomenon. To that end, it emphasizes a number of traits to insure that the results it gets are valid to the natural world.
  • objective – the scientific method intends to remove personal and cultural biases by focusing on objective testing procedures.

  • consistent – the laws of reasoning should be used to make hypotheses that are consistent with broader, currently known scientific laws; even in rare cases where the hypothesis is that one of the broader laws is incorrect or incomplete, the hypothesis should be composed to challenge only one such law at a time.

  • observable – the hypothesis presented should allow for experiments with observable and measurable results.

  • pertinent – all steps of the process should be focused on describing and explaining observed phenomena.

  • parsimonious – only a limited number of assumptions and hypothetical entities should be proposed in a given theory, as stated in Occam's Razor.

  • falsifiable – the hypothesis should be something which can be proven incorrect by observable data within the experiment, or else the experiment is not useful in supporting the hypothesis. (This aspect was most prominently illuminated by the philosopher of science Karl Popper.)

  • reproducible – the test should be able to be reproduced by other observers with trials that extend indefinitely into the future.
It is useful to keep these traits in mind when developing a hypothesis and testing procedure.

Conclusion

Hopefully this introduction to the scientific method has provided you with an idea of the significant effort that scientists go to in order to make sure their work is free from bias, inconsistencies, and unnecessary complications, as well as the paramount feat of creating a theoretical structure that accurately describes the natural world. When doing your own work in physics, it is useful to reflect regularly on the ways in which that work exemplifies the principles of the scientific method.
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