The Scientific Method

Every day the news is full of reports about the latest medical research. Sometimes we read about two different studies that seem to contradict each other. It’s hard to know what to believe, whose advice to follow. Before trying to decide about a particular study’s findings, it’s helpful to review what exactly is going on behind all research.

Scientists devise studies and conduct research in accordance with the scientific method. “Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it,” says physicist Percy W. Bridgman in “On Scientific Method”. Bridgman continues, “science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.” But although a scientist constructing an experiment to study something may not consciously think about pursuing the scientific method, a review of the basic facts of scientific research can help us non-scientists understand what the research and its results mean.

The scientific method has four basic steps:

Observation
Scientific investigation begins when a scientist has observed some event or characteristic of the world around us and wants to explain it. “First of all, the scientist tries to learn as much about a subject as time—or funding—allows. This requires a thorough study of the available literature, gathering information and data from a variety of sources, discussions with colleagues, and a lot of thinking” (“The Scientific Method—Elegant Experiments.” 30 Dec. 2000).

Formulation of a hypothesis
Observations lead to questions about the nature of the world, writes Anthony Carpi, Ph.D.: “In attempting to answer a question about the nature of the world, a scientist will form a hypothesis (or some would say a guess) regarding the question’s answer” (“SCI1.1-The Scientific Method.” 30 Dec. 2000). “After data has been collected and analyzed, the scientist formulates a hypothesis. It may be a short leap of logic, or an intuitive leap of faith” (“The Scientific Method—Elegant Experiments.” 30 Dec. 2000).

Prediction
The scientist then uses the hypothesis “to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations,” says Frank Wolfs, a physics professor at the University of Rochester (“Introduction to the Scientific Method.” 30 Dec. 2000).

Experimentation
Next, the scientist develops an experiment to test the predictions. “Of all the steps in the scientific method, the one that truly separates science from other disciplines is the process of experimentation. In order to prove, or disprove, a hypothesis, a scientist will design an experiment to test the hypothesis” (Carpi).

Finally, the scientist will “[r]epeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation. When consistency is obtained the hypothesis becomes a theory and provides a coherent set of propositions which explain a class of phenomena. A theory is then a framework within which observations are explained and predictions are made” (Jose Wudka. “What is the ‘scientific method’?” 30 Dec. 2000).