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Scientific Method

In a world that is not directly understandable we find that we sometimes disagree with others as to the facts of the things we see in the world around us.

We also find that there are things in the world that are at odds with our present understanding. One must ask a meaningful question or identify a significant problem, and one should be able to state the problem or question in a way that is conceivably possible to answer it. Any attempt to gain knowledge must start here. Scientific method refers to the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary representation of the world.

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organon

Scientific method attempts to provide a way in which we can reach agreement and understanding. A “perfect” scientific method might work in such a way that rational application of the method would always result in agreement and understanding. A perfect method would arguably be algorithmic, and so not leave any room for rational agents to disagree.

A tenet shared by various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the scientific process must be objective so that the interpretation of the results is not biased. Actively and fairly sampling the range of possible occurrences, whenever possible and proper, as opposed to the passive acceptance of opportunistic data, is the best way to control or counterbalance the risk of empirical bias.

An integral part of procedure is the complete documentation of data and methodology so it may be available for scrutiny by other scientists and researchers thus to allow other researchers the opportunity to verify results by reproduction. The scientific process requires repeated experiments by multiple researchers who must be able to replicate results in order to corroborate them.

Scientists propose specific hypotheses as explanations of natural phenomena, and design experimental studies that test these predictions for accuracy. These steps are repeated in order to make increasingly dependable predictions of future results. Theories can encompass wider domains of inquiry and serve to bind hypotheses together in a coherent structure.

Scientific method encompasses a body of techniques used for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and for correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It’s foundations are based on gathering observable, describable, empirical, measurable evidence, subject to the principles of reasoning.

The fundamental tenets of the basic scientific method crystallized no later than the rise of the modern physical sciences, in the 17th and 18th centuries. In his work Novum Organum (1620) — a reference to Aristotle’s Organon — Francis Bacon outlined a new system of logic to improve upon the old philosophical process of syllogism. Then, in 1637, René Descartes established the framework for a scientific method’s guiding principles in his treatise, Discourse on Method. These writings are considered critical in the historical development of the scientific method.

The development of the scientific method is inseparable from the history of science itself. Ancient Egyptian documents, such as early papyri, describe methods of medical diagnosis. In ancient Greek culture, the first elements of the inductive scientific method clearly become well established. Significant progress in methodology was made in early Muslim philosophy, in particular using experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation.

 

The essential elements of a scientific method are iterations, recursions, interleavings, and orderings of the following:

  • Characterizations (Quantifications, observations, and measurements)
  • Hypotheses (theoretical, hypothetical explanations of observations and measurements)
  • Predictions (reasoning including logical deduction from hypothesis and theory)
  • Experiments (tests of all of the above)

 

Some argue that concepts of causality are not obligatory to science, but are in fact well-defined only under particular conditions. Under these conditions the following requirements are generally regarded as important to scientific understanding:

The scientific method is not a fixed formula; it requires intelligence, imagination, and creativity. It is an ongoing cycle, constantly developing more useful, accurate and comprehensive models and methods.

For example, when Einstein developed the Special and General Theories of Relativity, he did not in any way refute or discount Newton’s Principia. On the contrary, if one reduces out the astronomically large, the vanishingly small, and the extremely fast from Einstein’s theories — all phenomena that Newton could not have observed — one is left with Newton’s equations.

 

Identification of causes: Identification of the causes of a particular phenomenon to the best achievable extent.

Covariation of events: The hypothesized causes must correlate with observed effects.

Time-order relationship: The hypothesized causes must precede the observed effects in time.

 

All hypotheses and theories are subject to disproof. There is a point at which there may be a consensus about a particular hypothesis or theory, yet it must in principle remain tentative. As a body of knowledge grows and a particular hypothesis or theory repeatedly brings predictable results, confidence in the hypothesis or theory increases.

Information must be valid for observations past, present, and future of given phenomena. Falsifiability or the elimination of plausible alternatives is the negative part of working a hypothesis. A scientist is engaged in disproving a theory or hypothesis as much as finding corroboration for it.

Thus the scientific process is iterative. At any stage it is possible that some consideration will lead the scientist to repeat an earlier part of the process. Failure of a hypothesis to produce interesting and testable predictions may lead to reconsideration of the hypothesis or of the definition of the subject. Failure of the experiment to produce interesting results may lead the scientist to reconsider the experimental method, the hypothesis or the definition of the subject.

The scientific method is principally based on three modes of thought: using empirical evidence (empiricism), practicing logical reasoning (rationalism), and possessing a skeptical attitude (skepticism) about presumed knowledge which ultimately leads to self-questioning, holding tentative conclusions, and an undogmatic stance (willingness to change one’s beliefs). These three ideas are universal throughout science; without them, there would be no scientific or critical thinking.

In summary, what is the popular notion of scientific thinking includes questions, observations, data, hypotheses, testing and theories and go some way toward constituting the formal part of the scientific method. While this schema outlines a typical hypothesis/testing method, it should also be mentioned that a number of philosophers, historians and sociologists of science (perhaps most notably Paul Feyerabend) claim that such descriptions of scientific method have little relation to the ways science is actually practiced.

 

A pragmatic scheme of the points of popular scientific methodology is as follows:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information and resources; observation and description of a phenomena or group of phenomena
  3. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena
  4. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
  5. Perform experiment and collect data
  6. Analyze data
  7. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new/evolved hypotheses
  8. Publish results: Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

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