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The REAL Scientific Method

Updated on March 23, 2015

As I mentioned in a previous hub, too many students are told, “Science is the study of EVERYTHING!” Bah! They’re told, The Scientific Method is a set number of steps to be performed in a particular order in order to “do” science. Double-Bah!

WHY the Confusion?

The formal definition of Scientific Method is “A GENERAL process of doing science.” Key word here is GENERAL. No SPECIFIC set-in-stone order or number of steps have ever been proscribed by a real scientist. Ever. Why, then, this confusion held by so many? At the peak of our high school’s science dept. population of 21, only three of us had actual science degrees. The rest (more than 85% of the teachers) had degrees in education or, in some cases, science education. Some (9th grade Integrated Science or Physical Science teachers) had only minimal experience teaching or doing science, as they came from middle school backgrounds, other areas of education such as “physical education” or were simply able to pass a grade 6-12 general science area test in order to get certified. In the state of Florida, you don’t even NEED certification in the area you’re teaching for the first year, and as long as you can pass the subject area exam within a year, you’re good to go! So many teachers with education degrees have minimal exposure to the laboratory sciences, and in some instances only needed 18 semester hours in fields such as biology.

Unfortunately, too many undergraduate science programs concentrate on the historical, practical, and applied nature of science. I’ve heard time and time again that science philosophy is either not discussed or only mentioned in the 1st lesson pedagogy of new or future science teachers. Heck, I even know scientists who’ve been working in their fields for years with nary a thought of the philosophy behind the methodology. The unfortunate result of omitting “Nature of Science” discussion? A generation of science teachers who remember “certain steps” in the scientific method. A generation of science teachers who really do believe “Evolution is only a Theory” (Remember from the previous hub post, a theory is accepted by scientific consensus and has balls).

So, What IS this GENERAL Process?

Are there some obvious “starters” or logical order to the process? Of course -- While I’ve seen publications indicating “questioning” being an initial step, it does stand to reason that something must first be observed before being questioned, no? I tell my students, then, that a question – A SCIENTIFIC QUESTION – A GOOD QUESTION – is asked after making an OBSERVATION. Remember, observations don’t have to be SIGHTED – They may be anything “noticed” such as smell, taste, feel, etc. A GOOD question is one that may be answered with a TESTABLE explanation. One tests with experiments, though technology may not yet be available to test one’s explanation, also known as a HYPOTHESIS. A good question may sound like this: After Louis Pasteur OBSERVED people getting ill after drinking milk left open to the air, he asked himself if exposure to the air spoiled/somehow changed the milk. He could HYPOTHESIZE that yes, exposure to air results in spoiling, and he could test that hypothesis with an experiment – Leave one container of milk open to the air, and another sealed (he actually used bouillon). What does a bad question sound like? One that’s not testable or that tests more than one thing at once. For example, if Pasteur asked, “What makes the milk bad?” how can he set up an experiment to test 10+ things going on at once? We can only test for one thing at a time, and the way we test a hypothesis is with a carefully crafted EXPERIMENT. Remember, too, you can only test one hypothesis at a time with an experiment, and while your hypothesis may be a good one, technology may not be readily available in order to test it.

What if We Can’t Conduct an Experiment?

At this point, I’d like to add that I see many students (and teachers) use the terms “Scientific Method” and “Experiment” interchangeably. An experiment is merely a STEP in the scientific method, the GENERAL process of doing science. While an experiment oftentimes follows hypothesizing, as mentioned earlier, available technology may require limiting our tests to models. A MODEL is simply a representation of a real object OR event. It can be 2-dimensional like a picture of a hurricane moving onto land, or it can 3-dimensional, or even simply mathematical. A good example is Einstein’s THEORY of Relativity. We couldn’t test this idea with a direct experiment at the time, but he worked out the math. After slogging through the math (with many attempts to poke holes in it), the general consensus in the scientific community was that it couldn’t be DISPROVEN, and the math supported the idea. While experiments could be THOUGHT of and carried out when new TECHNOLOGY would be developed, the idea jumped from HYPOTHESIS to THEORY, a TESTED explanation accepted by competing scientific interests.

How to Construct an Experiment – Easier Said than Done!

If we’re able to construct our experiment, we must be able to CONTROL every conceivable variable so as to know we’re only testing one thing. If you’re going to test whether the amount of fertilizer a plant receives affects its growth, for example, then you’d better make sure the amount of water and sunlight each receives is identical. These are examples of EXPERIMENTAL CONTROLS – part of an experiment that ensures only one variable is tested at a time. Pasteur had to make sure he used the same type of bouillon in his experiment, the same volume in each container, etc. He also had a CONTROL GROUP, a sample of a group of test tubes not expected to be affected by the experiment – A group of test tubes filled only w/ water in this case (water is not expected to “change” when exposed to air). Collecting and analyzing data is part of the experimental process, too – They’re part of EXPERIMENT and including them (such as generating graphs, etc.) apart from the experimental or modeling step is inappropriate. After experimenting as many times as ethically or financially possible, a scientist may publish his paper. Other scientists with competing interests will often seek to develop new experiments to test the original hypothesis. Only after being accepted by consensus is the hypothesis elevated to THEORY status.

But, what if the hypothesis is shown to be wrong? A good scientist will seek to redo the experiment, will seek possible “control loopholes” (booboos) missed earlier. But, if still shown to be incorrect, was the hypothesis a failure? Was the experiment a waste? I leave you to answer these questions. If a hypothesis is tested and re-tested and re- re-tested, a new hypothesis may be developed and consensus never reached. If a hypothesis survives, and is confirmed, THEORY status may be conferred. In the case of Einstein’s Relativity, several experiments were performed many years later, once technology (such as atomic clocks, super-fast jets, and muon detectors) caught up.

So, this is the end – After THEORY, nothing?

You’ve probably guessed that on-going testing and re-testing is the norm. And re- re-testing. Maybe even in your science classroom. Or your kid’s science classroom. But, some of you may have heard a theory can change. If you understand that a theory is a tested EXPLANATION behind an experimental outcome, then, yes, a theory may change. Unlike a law which only states what’ll be observed in an experiment (and is contant), a theory states the mechanism behind the observation. Recalling Pasteur’s experiment, he WAS correct in that exposure to air over time results in changes to food such as milk or bouillon. With the invention of better optics and microscopes, we can now say, “Bacteria in the air can lead to changes in food….” Only with the advent of new technology may a theory change.

Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported (CC bY-SA 3.0)


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