Arecibo Radio Telescope

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is at the heart of so much of our modern world, whether it’s the development of new treatments for serious diseases, the search for habitable planets around other stars, or your thought process of determining which driving route will get you to work fastest in the morning.

But what exactly is The Scientific Method

The scientific method typically is defined as “the principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge.“1 At its most basic level, the scientific method involves recognizing (or formulating) a problem/question, followed by an established process of working toward a potential solution to the problem/answer to the question.

Students in the University of Wisconsin class "Life in the Universe" display their research project posters.
Students in the University of Wisconsin class “Life in the Universe” display their research project posters.

There are three characteristics that are core to the scientific method (both the ideal of the method and in real world applications):

  • Modern science seeks explanations for observed phenomena that rely solely on natural causes.
  • Science progresses through the creation and testing of models of nature that explain the observations as simply as possible.
  • A scientific model must make testable predictions about natural phenomena that would force us to revise or abandon the model if the predictions do not agree with observations.
Physicists at the University of Wisconsin are spinning superheated plasma to mimic the turbulent flow that creates the sun's magnetic field. The goal is to study how solar magnetic fields form and why they sometimes cause flares that interfere with activity on Earth.
Physicists at the University of Wisconsin construct an experiment to spin superheated plasma, mimicking the turbulent flow that creates the sun’s magnetic field. The goal is to study how solar magnetic fields form and test hypotheses about how those fields cause flares that can interfere with activity on Earth.

The main steps of the scientific method are:

  1. Make Observations
  2. Ask a Question
  3. Suggest a Hypothesis (often called an educated guess)
  4. Make a Prediction
  5. Test the Prediction (perform an experiment or make additional observations)
  6. Revise the Hypothesis or Perform Further Tests (depending on whether the results of testing the prediction validated or negated your original hypothesis)

As a simple example to illustrate the scientific method, imagine that you pick up your smart phone from the desk where you placed it the previous night and you observe it will not turn on. In your mind, you ask a question — what could be preventing the phone from starting? In the hope that the problem doesn’t require an expensive repair, you might hypothesize that the phone’s battery has lost its charge. Based on that hypothesis, you predict that if you connect your phone to its charger, the battery will recharge and it will be able to start. You test your prediction by connecting the phone to the charger and observing what happens next. If your phone starts after allowing the battery to recharge, your hypothesis has been validated; if it doesn’t start, you must suggest a new hypothesis for why the phone isn’t working (and start the process over again).

A word of caution. The scientific method is a useful idealization of the process, but in the real world things rarely progress in a linear fashion. As one of my Astrobiology professors is fond of saying, “science is messy.”

Often science occurs in a much more general fashion, when someone examines nature hoping to learn something new (and frequently unexpected). When the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3 first photographed the far side of the moon on October 7, 1959, scientists had no idea what it might look like — in fact they were surprised how little the moon’s far side resembled the side we can see from Earth.2

As an interesting aside, the word “science” comes from the Latin term “scientia,” which means “knowledge.” But all knowledge is not science. For example, you may know that Alan Parsons is the greatest audio engineer to ever mix an album,3 but that knowledge is not science.

Now that you are better acquainted with the scientific method, I suspect you’ll discover it holding up a large portion of our modern, high-tech world. Because (as the band They Might Be Giants is fond of pointing out) Science is Real!

  1. Merriam-Webster dictionary []
  2. The far side has almost none of the lunar maria — or “seas” of hardened basaltic lava from ancient volcanic eruptions — that dominate the Earth-facing side. []
  3. Alan Parsons has served as engineer on such classic albums as The Beatles’ Abby Road and Let It Be, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, and numerous others, as well as 14 albums of his own music. []

2 thoughts on “The Scientific Method”

  1. TOTAL garbage article. There is NO SUCH THING as “The Scientific Method” That poster version taught to kids who are about 12 is ERRONEOUS as erroneous can be.

  2. As a researcher myself, I find this (the scientific method) very useful. I do so because precisely, it is this kind of method–which we also apply in the humanities to some extent–what allows you to demonstrate your argument, elaborate your ideas, and incur in constructive dialogue.

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