Scientific Method

The scientific method is used by scientists to get new knowledge or to confirm what they think they know.

The knowledge obtained using this method is usually of very high quality because the method is very rigorous – that is, it is very good at preventing incorrect information from creeping in and being thought of as fact. The method itself has a very simple structure. Here it is:

  1. Observe a phenomenon
  2. Hypothesize (guess) an explanation for it
  3. Predict some other outcomes of the guess
  4. Test the prediction to see if it was right
  5. Review any one of these steps for errors

You might be asking yourself ‘Why would I use this? I can just use common sense to figure out what is going on.’ Good question! The reason the scientific method is valuable lies in it’s structured approach to solving problems – it serves as an insulator between our search for the truth about something and wishful thinking.

There are plenty of examples using the scientific method that demonstrates it’s applicability in a hardcore science setting. Now, while these examples are useful, we can use a more down to earth example to show its power.

Let's assume that you are sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast. You’ve chosen this spot because of the great view it affords directly in front of you – a calm bay surrounded by trees.

To your left is an emergency door with red markings indicating that an alarm will sound if it is opened. Partway through the meal, the door is opened by someone from the outside (another patron) – at first nothing seems to happen and you go about eating breakfast.

Then, about a minute later, a loud alarm sounds throughout the building for a few seconds and then stops. Next, a delivery person uses the same door and about a minute later the alarm sounds again.

At this point you are probably thinking ‘The alarm is obviously caused by the emergency door being opened.’ Ah – but after the alarm finished the second time, it sounded again about 5 minutes later – but this time, no one opened the emergency door. Now what do you think?

If you have not guessed it already, this series of events actually occurred to your faithful author.

As it turns out, the alarm was not triggered by the door at all, but by some overzealous cooks in the kitchen. Our ‘common sense’ can deceive us into believing all sorts of things – especially when it is in our interests to do so.

How could we have used the scientific method in this situation to ferret out the truth about what was really happening?

Let’s try and use each step and see where we end up. The first step, ‘Observe a phenomenon’, is straightforward enough – we observe that an alarm is going off. The second step is ‘Hypothesize an explanation for it’ – this essentially means to take a guess. But not just a random guess, a guess using some information we already have.

We know that the alarm is going off and we know that a door is being opened; it is natural to assume the two are related. So our hypothesis is that by opening the door the alarm is triggered.

Now we take the next step of the scientific method - make a predictionbased upon our guess. Well – how would you test it? That’s right – open the door and see if the alarm sounds after about a minute.

It is at this point that we could have caught our error – doing this test of opening the door two or three times would have discredited the hypothesis that the door causes the alarm to sound. It might have sounded, but not every time and it probably would not have been after a minute. Our tests would have yielded inconsistent results.

What would the behavior have been if our hypothesis was correct? Right - an alarm sound about a minute afterward, every single time. 

So what do you do if your hypothesis (your guess) does not hold (that is, if it turns out to be wrong?) Make a new one! After that, proceed with your prediction and testing.

You know you have a good hypothesis when you’ve tested it extensively and you keep getting results that you expect. This is, in essence, being a good scientist. Use the scientific method to be a good scientist. Ferret out the truth regardless of how things ‘look’ – looks can be deceiving.

Wikipedia has really in-depth coverage of the scientific method, be sure to check it out if you are still unsure about how it works.