The Scientific Method

Many of us have an innate curiosity about the world around us.

Goal of Science - Provide explanations for observed phenomina and to establish generalizations that can predict the relationship between these and other phenomina.

We are constantly seeking explanations for what we observe is happening. As we seek to understand, we develops an explanation, hypothesis. In the western world we have formalized this process into what is termed the Scientific Method. The scientific method is a sequences of steps designed to lead to the development of theories, tested explanations, of the phenomenon that we have observed around us.

A hypothesis that can not be disproved becomes a theory; a scientifically acceptable general principle offered to explain phenomina; the analysis of a set of facts in their ideal relations to one another.

A good theory is simple! The 14 th century philosopher William of Occam said,"Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum" ("Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity"). This is referred to as Occam's razor because it pares a theory to its bare essentials.

At its most basic, the traditional Scientific Method is a five step process. These are:


  1. Definition of the Problem.
  2. Gathering of Relevant Data.
  3. Formulation of a Hypothesis.
  4. Observation or Experimentation to test Hypothesis.
  5. Acceptance, Modification, or Rejection of the Hypothesis.

As with most things these days, the process has become more defined and, therefore we have advanced methodologies:

Learning The Complete Method of Creative Problem-Solving & Decision-Making SM -14; the 14 Ingredients of the Scientific Method.

Our Proceedure

We start the scientific method with observations. We observe events and seek to explain them. Such an explanation is initially termed a hypothesis. A Hypothesis is:

With more and more thought, it is possible to develop more and more explanations, some more plausible than others. Having developed a family of explanations, hypotheses, it is necessary to test our hypotheses. What we try to do is sequentially show that the hypotheses are wrong.

The basic tenant of the Scientific Method is that you can only disprove, you can never prove anything scientifically. Now, as in a court of law, we may be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt; but only by not being able to disprove. Not disproving is not the same as proving, it does not mean that our hypothesis is right, it only means that no one has been able to develop a test which actually disproves our explanations.

Hypotheses which can not be disproved are elevated to the exalted position of a theory. A theory is a working hypothesis, explanation, that is used by the scientific community to continue to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around us. We can use theories to make predictions about the behavior of observable phenominon.

Testing a hypothesis

The test we use to disprove a hypotheses is called an experiment. The test is designed to answer a question. The question is designed to disprove the hypothesis. Good questions can be answere for or against - yes or no. Therefore, a good test provides us with a definitive answer. For example, if we do the test and obtain a positive result, then we can say we have disproved the hypothesis; then it is necessary to modify or restate the hypothesis. But, what about the converse, if the test is negative, the hypothesis is not disproven and we try to ask other questions to disprove it. If our hypothesis cannot be disproved then it may become a theory. Unfortunately, if the answer is not positive or negative, but somewhere in between, we are left suspendid inthe process and need to restart the process.

Now, we can have multiple hypotheses. We can test a number of these at once, such that the results of the experiment serves to disprove, discredit, a number of these at once. Or we can have mutually exclusive hypotheses such that if one is true, not disproven, the others are false, disproved. However, such convoluted reasoning and testing can be self defeating. That is, if we do not obtain the expected results, we may not be able to say anything about any of the hypotheses; this would be a poor experiment.

Good Science versus Bad Science

Qualities of good science:

  1. Not based on authority
  2. Testable
  3. Repeatable
  4. Universal
  5. Measurable (Tangible)
  6. Observable
  7. Narrow (Occam's razor)/Simple

Designing an Experiment

A good experiment is difficult to design. It is best to keep experiments simple, to pare them down to the least number of elements possible, and to design it to produce definitive results, which can be unequivocally interpreted. In reality, it is frequently better to run a series of tests, experiments, rather than performing only one. The reason is we are frequently seeking to identify what happens when we do something; we want to know what will happen if we make a single change, all other factors held constant.

That change we are making is called a variable; the constant portion is called the control. We would prefer to only change one variable at a time; because, if we make a whole bunch of changes, it is difficult to determine a direct cause and effect. We are frequently better off making a small change, observing the result, making a little bigger change, observing the result, and then evaluating this sequence of events.

Copyright © 1999 by M. J. Malachowski, Ph.D..

This page last updated: 10/12/14