It refers to a set of processes that people can use to gain knowledge about the world around them, improve that knowledge, and explain why and/or how things happen. By using this method, observations are made, questions are formulated, hypotheses are formed, experiments are conducted, data is analyzed, and a conclusion is reached.
In everyday situations, the scientific method is used by non-scientists as well. Every scientific experiment serves as an example of the scientific method in action.
Scientific Method Overview
In the scientific method, the goal is to get as close as possible to the objective truth. However, part of the process is to constantly refine your conclusions, ask new questions, and continue to search for the rules of the universe. By using the scientific method, scientists attempt to uncover how the world works and understand the laws that govern it.
Almost any question can be answered by the scientific method, but it can yield conflicting evidence depending on the method of experimentation. Therefore, the scientific method is a very useful tool for finding out information – though it must be used with caution!
Scientific Method Steps
Scientific method steps vary from source to source, but the general principle is the same: acquiring knowledge through observation and experimentation.
Making an Observation
Making an observation about the world around you is the first step in the scientific method. Hypotheses and experiments can only be made after observing and thinking about some sort of phenomenon. Whenever one does not know why or how something is occurring and wants to find out, the scientific method is used. The first step in forming a question is to notice something puzzling.
Asking a Question
The next step is to ask a question based on the observations made. The following are some examples of good questions:
- Is there a reason why this is happening?
- What is causing this to happen?
- Is there a reason or method for why this happens?
This step is sometimes listed first in the scientific method, followed by making observations and researching the phenomena. As a matter of fact, making observations and asking questions tend to happen at the same time.
When observing a confusing event, one may immediately ask, “Why is it happening?” When observations are being made and questions are being formed, you should do research to find out if others have already answered the question or uncovered information that may help you formulate your question. When you discover why something is occurring, you may want to investigate how it occurs.
Forming a Hypothesis
Based on prior observations, a hypothesis is a guess that tries to explain the phenomenon that has occurred by making an educated guess. This step answers the question posed in the previous step. Depending on the question being asked, hypotheses can be more specific or more general, but they must all be testable by gathering evidence that can be measured.
In the absence of testable hypotheses, it is impossible to conduct an experiment to determine whether they are supported by evidence.
Performing an Experiment
Testing a hypothesis requires setting up and conducting an experiment. In an experiment, there must be an independent variable (something that is controlled by the experimenter) and a dependent variable (something that may be affected by the independent variable). It is important to control all other variables so that they do not affect the outcome.
Data is collected during an experiment. A set of data is a set of values, either quantitative (measured in numbers) or qualitative (described or generalized).
In the case of testing the effect of sunlight on plant growth, the amount of light would be the independent variable (the thing you manipulate) and the height of the plants would be the dependent variable (the thing affected by the independent variable).
To collect data on whether sunlight affects plant growth, other factors such as temperature, soil moisture, and plant species would need to be kept the same between all plants used in the experiment. Since you would measure the height of the plant in numbers, the data you would collect would be quantitative.
Analyzing data is the next step after performing an experiment and collecting data. In order to determine relationships among data, research experiments are usually analyzed with statistical software. As an alternative, one could simply examine the data and see how they correlate with the change in the independent variable.
Forming a Conclusion
Forming a conclusion is the last step in the scientific method. It is possible that the hypothesis is the explanation for the phenomenon if the data support the hypothesis. Multiple trials must be conducted to confirm the results, and it is also important to make sure that the sample size is large enough so that only a few observations skewed the data.
When the data do not support the hypothesis, more observations are made, a new hypothesis is formed, and the scientific method is applied again. A research conclusion can be presented to others to inform them of the findings and to receive input on the validity of the conclusion.
Scientific Method Examples
As a basis for all scientific experiments, the scientific method can be found in many examples throughout history. Over the centuries, scientists have conducted experiments using the scientific method.
Francesco Redi’s spontaneous generation experiment is one such example. In the 17th Century, when Redi lived, people commonly believed that living things could spontaneously arise from organic matter. Maggots, for example, were believed to be created from left out meat. In his alternate hypothesis, Redi argued that maggots were actually a part of the life cycle of flies!
Four jars of meat were left out for an experiment: some uncovered, others covered with muslin, and others sealed completely. Maggots appeared shortly after flies got into the uncovered jars. Maggots were found on the outer surface of the muslin covering the covered jars, but not inside. The sealed jars had no maggots at all.
According to Redi, maggots did not spontaneously appear in meat. By growing captured maggots into adult flies, he confirmed the results. Today, it may seem obvious, but back then, people didn’t know as much about the world. It was through experiments like these that people learned what we know now.
The scientific method is used by scientists in their research, but it is also used by non-scientists on a daily basis. Whether you were aware of it or not, you have used the scientific method many times when solving problems.
Let’s say a lightbulb goes out at home. Observing that the lightbulb is out is an observation. Then you would naturally ask, “Why is the lightbulb out?” and make some assumptions. The bulb may have burned out, for example. Next, you would perform a very small experiment to test your hypothesis; namely, you would replace the bulb and analyze the results (“Did the light come back on?”).
The scientific method is a systematic approach used by scientists to investigate natural phenomena, acquire knowledge, and test hypotheses. It involves a series of steps that include observation, formulation of a hypothesis, design and execution of experiments or studies, analysis of data, and drawing conclusions based on evidence.
The steps of the scientific method typically include:
a) Making observations and asking questions about a phenomenon.
b) Formulating a testable hypothesis based on the observations.
c) Designing and conducting experiments or studies to test the hypothesis.
d) Collecting and analyzing data from the experiments.
e) Interpreting the results and drawing conclusions.
f) Communicating the findings through scientific publications or presentations.
g) Repeating the process to refine or expand knowledge.
The scientific method is essential because it provides a structured approach to investigate the natural world objectively. It allows scientists to test hypotheses, evaluate evidence, and build a body of knowledge based on empirical data. The scientific method promotes transparency, repeatability, and critical thinking, leading to the advancement of scientific understanding and the development of new technologies.
While the scientific method is primarily associated with natural sciences, it can be applied to various fields of study beyond physics, chemistry, and biology. It can be used in social sciences, such as psychology and sociology, as well as in applied sciences like engineering and medicine. However, the specific application of the scientific method may vary depending on the nature of the research questions and the methods employed in each field.
The scientific method has certain limitations. It relies on measurable and observable phenomena, which may not encompass all aspects of reality, such as subjective experiences or ethical considerations. Additionally, the scientific method is subject to human biases, experimental limitations, and the possibility of uncontrolled variables affecting the results. However, these limitations are recognized within the scientific community, and ongoing discussions and advancements aim to address them and improve the scientific process.