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While it may seem that each week our topic somehow involves COVID-19, as a blog that aims not only to share with our readers the basic tenets of science but draw connections between those tenets and how they operate in the real world, this coverage makes sense—the coronavirus pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of our lives in some way.
The pandemic has caused many people to consider the value of the scientific community at large as it worked to quickly provide for our greatly struggling nation. Under particular scrutiny, however, have been those doing the science in general and, more specifically, the scientific method, which has been the subject of largely unsubstantiated criticism as many armchair “scientists” take to Google to support their often biased claims.
Thankfully, working to eliminate bias is the goal of the scientific method. So, how does the scientific method operate in the real world? How has it developed over time? The rest of this article answers these questions, and more, and may perhaps shed a bit of light on why “doing science” is an act that gets us as close to knowing as we know how to do now.
The earliest development of the scientific method was defined by the emergence of important thinkers, such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, who began to take a more systematic approach to confirming their beliefs. When Louis Pasteur set out to disprove spontaneous generation, he conducted his experiment in an approach that we now recognize as characteristic of today’s scientific method.
Basically, the scientific method operates as a feedback loop, allowing the investigator to get ever closer to an answer to their initial question. From curiosity, to a question, to a hypothesis, to a test and analysis of its results, the investigator learns more about the world around them. The steps of the scientific method are described in different ways, but follow the same broad equation:
Make observations: Choose a topic to study, then conduct a thorough review of the existing literature on the subject, which will teach you what has already been learned about the topic and what questions remain to be answered.
Ask questions: Good questions identify something that can be measured. They typically begin with how, what, when, who, which, why, or where.
Formulate a hypothesis: A hypothesis is an educated guess about the answer to your question. Again, the hypothesis must be measurable, which will allow it to meaningfully attempt to answer your original question.
Conduct an experiment that tests your hypothesis: Identify a controlled variable or dependent variable in your procedure. Controls allow for the testing of a single variable because they are unchanged. Then, observations and comparisons can be made between the controls and the independent variables (things that change in the experiment) to develop a conclusion.
Record and analyze your data and draw a conclusion: Detail all observations made and data collected during your experiment. Make a statement about what you have found and communicate the results to others.
Through the scientific method, scientists often find that their predictions were not accurate and their hypotheses were not supported. In such cases, they will record the results of their experiment and then go back and construct a new hypothesis and prediction based on the information they learned during their experiment, repeating much of the process of the scientific method, but using what they learned as a springboard for the next questions to be asked. Even if they find that their hypothesis was supported, scientists often retest their predictions in a new way in an attempt to replicate their results and support their claim even further.
Several limitations to the scientific method have been noted over time. For instance, we are constrained by the extent of existing knowledge, meaning that even the hypotheses and experimental designs we can create are based on current human knowledge (i.e., we only know what we know). Also, designs of experiments are limited to observations using the current instruments available (again, we can only use what we currently have to make our measurements).
Human error also presents a barrier to carrying out the scientific method in its purest form: Mistakes can occur in recording observations or in inaccurate use of measuring instruments. Human nature is also a cause for other unfortunate fates of scientific discovery, such as the falsification of results, or scientific fraud, and the fact that prior confidence in the hypothesis being true/false can affect the accuracy of observation and the interpretation of results.
Due to these and other misgivings about the scientific method, many people petition for its elimination—at least in terms of how it has been held up as the gold standard within most classroom laboratories. Some of those critical of its perceived rigidity make the distinction between scientists’ approach to finding truth and the philosophical toolkit required to understand what that might look like in the first place.
Despite these shortcomings of the scientific method, the process certainly helps people approach problems they encounter each day with a greater chance of success. Furthermore, these steps are not reserved for those with degrees or backgrounds in science, which is part of the beauty of “doing science”: Anyone can engage their curiosities in meaningful ways that initiate learning.
We use a form of the scientific method regularly to figure out solutions to everyday problems, such as why a car won’t start, or to make current ways of doing things even better, like baking fluffier cookies. Here’s an example of the scientific method in action:
You flip on a light switch, and the bulb does not light.
Make an observation: The light bulb did not light.
Ask a question: Is the light bulb blown?
Formulate a hypothesis: The light bulb is blown.
Prediction: If I replace the bulb and it lights, then my hypothesis is validated. If the bulb does not light, then my hypothesis is invalidated.
Conduct an experiment that tests your hypothesis: Replace the bulb.
Record and analyze your data and draw a conclusion: New bulb lights up. Conclusion: The hypothesis is validated. The bulb was blown.
Where can you identify the scientific method operating in your daily life?
Looking for a simple all-in-one kit designed to give you and your kids hands-on experience with the scientific method? Check out our egg drop kit! The goal is to protect an egg using the supplied materials by creating a safe enclosure. Get going by considering the following questions: What is your objective? How can you achieve this? What do you imagine the safest design could be? Make sure to document and test each design and record your results—each iteration of your design can only get better!