Anyone who has spent any time in a science classroom has heard about the Scientific Method, and might feel it is as rigid and precise in its order as the elements are in the Periodic Table. Spend a few minutes investigating this system for investigation,
however, and its beautiful flexibility becomes apparent.
The Scientific Method provide a way to look at nature without bias. It organizes curiosity, a basic human instinct. It provides empirical evidence--evidence that can be observed with ordinary senses--about nature. It gives scientists a way to systematically improve their understanding of the natural world.
Other parts of society are infused with bias, individual opinion, and emotion, and many times we welcome these feelings. We are entertained, we sympathize, and we are comforted. Science is something different. It strives to eliminate the human traits (some
might say flaws) that inject personal viewpoints into facts. Over generations and centuries, the Scientific Method seeks to balance cultural belief, religious dogma or societal pressure. Through scientific investigation in an orderly way, scientists can
trust that information gained 100 years ago is as valid as information uncovered last week.
While scientific inquiry generally and classically follows four steps, the order and the steps are completely flexible without affecting the reliability and validity of results. Those traditional four steps are as follows:
First a scientist observes a natural phenomenon using the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and--sometimes, if
safe--taste. The shorthand for this is to Observe.
Next, the scientist considers a question about the phenomenon, and seeks to explain it. Consider this the Hypothesis.
Third, to learn if the hypothesis fits the phenomenon, the scientist conceives and conducts an Experiment.
We have arrived at the fourth step, the Conclusion. Here is where many in the general public wander away from true science. The scientist now has results of an experiment, and will study those results carefully, inviting others to study the results as well.
Three choices are available: the experiment supported the hypothesis; the experiment showed the hypothesis to be flawed; or the experiment was inconclusive. A scientist finds no shame in a negative or inconclusive experiment; it leads to a stronger hypothesis. The public, misunderstanding this, may instead consider the inquiry a waste of time or money. Nothing productive seemed to come from the effort, though the scientist will disagree. Every experiment yields more information and gets the scientist closer to the truth.
Those are the four traditional steps, steeped in history and entombed in countless science textbooks. Simply reciting these four steps, though, leaves out the essential iterative (repeating) nature of good science. The Scientific Method is a circle, not a
list. The steps are a recipe, and the scientist is free to adjust the recipe. The Scientific Method always leads back to questions and more inquiry, refining and narrowing focus. From the conclusions to an experiment comes a new question, a better hypothesis, and a new direction for experiment.
Leonardo Da Vinci set down observations five centuries ago, and his work can still be analyzed by a scientist today. The thought experiments of Albert Einstein, which needed no lab or elaborate machinery, can be tested and studied today using particle
accelerators and space stations. Hypotheses become more and more valid as more and more observations and experiments add to their truth. Science moves forward in recursive loops of questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting, arguing and re-questioning.
Where some who are unfamiliar with the Scientific Method see weakness, scientists see strength. No conclusion goes unquestioned. Every experiment must be repeatable. Data are presented for everyone to pry apart, tinker with, and undermine. Some outside the
scientific community may find it unsettling, that scientists would encourage their peers to find weaknesses in their work. But science gains strength from testing. No one wants to live in a house whose foundations are weak.