The Scientific Method, part 1: What Is It?

After last week’s post of the Dr. Hugh Ross video, I got to thinking about “the scientific method”. Ross is certainly a big fan of it, as is anyone — scientist or layman — who is at all familiar with the scientific enterprise. Indeed, anyone in search for truth in any arena should be a fan of the underlying principles.

So, what *is* the “scientific method”, anyway?

image and quote of Roger BaconAs with the definition for “science” (and a number of other things), if you ask a dozen scientists or philosophers of science to define or explain the scientific method, you’ll probably get a dozen (or more) variations on an answer. But, before I try, I think a brief bit of history is in order.

In a previous post, I mentioned two early, groundbreaking scientists, Roger Bacon (13th cent.) and Francis Bacon (16th-17th cent.), both of whom were noted for their advocacy of the “scientific method”. In fact, Roger Bacon, who was himself heavily influenced by Robert Grosseteste, is called by many the “father of modern scientific method”. The investigative approach we now call the “scientific method” — though it has since been refined — was so closely identified with his descendant, Sir Francis Bacon, that it was known as the “Baconian method”.

At the time, not all research by “natural philosophers” (i.e., scientists) was consistent or methodical and relied too much on the application of deductive reasoning via Aristotelian syllogisms. Bacon and others, though, encouraged a more structured and systematic approach that emphasized experimentation and the application of inductive reasoning to get at the truth. Sometimes called the “Father of Empiricism” or “Father of Experimental Science”, Bacon outlined his ideas for a new system of logic in his Novum Organum (1620). His contemporary, René Descartes, then established a framework of guiding principles for the scientific method in his treatise, Discourse on Method (1637). There have been those (e.g., Charles Peirce (19th-20th cent.)) who disagreed on one or many points of this approach, but for the most part this new, “modern scientific method” has dominated scientific inquiry ever since.

For a decent summary of what it entails, I grabbed the following from Wikipedia:

“The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” The chief characteristic which distinguishes the scientific method from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, supporting a theory when a theory’s predictions are confirmed and challenging a theory when its predictions prove false.”

But, exactly how many steps there are (or should be) to the method and the proper description of each will vary according to who you talk to and what is being investigated. The briefest explanation I have heard/read boils down to this:

1. Observation
2. Hypothesis (inc. Prediction)
3. Experimentation
4. Conclusion (inc. Revision?)

On the other hand, some would insist on 12 or more steps. (Honestly, I can’t remember where I heard or read that, and I didn’t see an actual list, but I’m pretty sure it was at least twelve steps.) I have also seen versions with any number of steps in between. This is often because what one scheme may characterize as a single step actually has several sub-steps, which a different scheme may opt to break out into one or more separate steps. (For example, the analysis and interpretation of data and the publication of results may be lumped into one step, broken out into two or three separate steps, or assumed to be parts of “Experimentation” and/or “Conclusion”.) But, particularly when applied to a given physical event or sequence of events, most would agree that some variation of the following nine steps is essential:

1. Identify the phenomenon to be investigated and explained and/or collect relevant texts and observations.
2. Identify the frame(s) of reference or point(s) of view to be used in studying and describing the phenomenon.
3. Determine the context and initial conditions for the phenomenon.
4. Perform an experiment or observe the phenomenon, noting what takes place when, where, and in what order.
5. Note the final conditions for the phenomenon.
6. Form a tentative explanation, or hypothesis, for how and why things transpired as they did.
7. Test the hypothesis with further experiments or observations, eliminating extraneous data and adding any previously overlooked important information.
8. Revise the hypothesis accordingly.
9. Determine how well the hypothetical explanation of the phenomenon integrates with explanations of related phenomena (i.e., consistency with all available information).

Of course, the steps should not be performed only once. Rather, it is designed to be a continuous and cyclical process. How far back towards the beginning one returns in each cycle will depend on the results of the latest testing, their interpretation, and the extent of the revision(s). If one finds that major revisions are repeatedly called for, it may be time to accept it as a failed hypothesis. And that is fine, as it is all part of the scientific enterprise. Propose your hypothesis (but, hopefully, don’t get too attached to it), test it, and follow the evidence.

X-ray laser experiment

X-ray laser experiment

On the other hand, if a hypothesis is on the right track, continued testing and good interpretations should lead to increasingly smaller revisions. As it explains and predicts more and more, it may be re-classified as a “theory”. (There is no hard-and-fast rule for when this happens, and a hypothesis’ proponents will likely be more disposed toward its promotion than will its opponents.) With continued success, often involving newly developed tests and progressively precise/sensitive technology, a scientific “theory” may eventually become sufficiently detailed and comprehensive to earn the designation of “model” — though, sometimes, “theory” and “model” are used interchangeably. (Again, as far as I can tell, there are no definitive guidelines for how or when this occurs.) And the observations, experimentation, and revisions continue….

The benefits of following such a methodology are many. It recognizes that our knowledge, understanding, and objectivity will always be finite. It minimizes (though it cannot eliminate) the potential effects of things like human error, confusion, operational and ideological bias. It fosters the view that hypotheses should be held tentatively and that testing and re-evaluation be ongoing. And, when followed honestly, it helps to ensure (though it cannot guarantee) that the best ideas, the ones that are held onto, are the ones with the greatest explanatory power & scope and predictive success.

As Dr. Hugh Ross has stated:

“Consistent application of this step-by-step method encourages the necessary meticulousness, restraint, and humility a truth-quest warrants. Use of this process rests on and even builds on confidence that the natural realm is a well-ordered, consistent, contradiction-free system. This method and this underlying conviction, more than anything else, launched and propelled the scientific revolution of the past four centuries.”

Dr. Ross and I would both disagree with the philosophical theory of empiricism, which holds that true knowledge can only be discovered & known via sensory experience and experimentation. But, the “scientific method” has proven itself an excellent, practical tool for investigating the world(s) around us!

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