Scientific Method

Posted on July 28, 2010

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It is easy to develop some strange ideas about science. For many people it is Science, a mysterious entity, part secretive organization, part mystic discipline, part religion. Everything from films to news articles perpetuates this view. This strange Science produces weapons and miracle cures, and is perpetuated by (mostly) men and (a few) women in strange costumes who speak in impenetrable jargon and perform miracles but who are never entirely sure about anything. There are usually a lot of beakers with bubbling chemicals and explosions. None of this is entirely false, but very little of it is actually what science is about. It’s a creation of the culture that has grown up at the same time.

Science is really very simple. It is a way of learning about the world. It’s certainly not the only one, but a lot of the other ones come down to “God said so”. On a personal level that may be very satisfying, but to someone who doesn’t believe, that sounds an awful lot like “I made it up”. It comes in two parts, observation and experimentation.

A lot of important scientific work is making trained observations; collecting information on what is, but doing so in such a way that it can be compared to other information. This requires standardization. Scientists have some very specific definitions of units of measurement, equipment, and procedure. Every discipline has its own requirements. This way, a chemist measuring the density of one mineral can be sure that another chemist would get the same result if he measured the density of that same mineral.

Experimentation goes further. An experiment answers the question, “what happens if I do this?” Usually it starts out as a hypothesis. “Thing B happens when Thing A does.” But since just saying it doesn’t make it true, a scientist has to come up with an experiment where he does Thing A and hopes that Thing B happens. Then he goes to his fellow scientists and says “Aha! Thing A causes Thing B. I am brilliant!” The other scientists, not wanting to cede grant money and fabulous prizes say, “Wait a minute. You can’t say that for sure. Thing C happens too. Maybe Thing C causes Thing B, and Thing A is just a coincidence.” So the original scientist goes back and does another experiment where he’s careful to leave thing C out. This is, of course, the ideal scenario. Often the scientist spends years doing experiments and finding out that Thing A doesn’t cause Thing B, or that he really can’t be sure, because the data don’t really go one way or the other. But every so often, the scientist does an experiment, and it comes out the way he hoped, and the other scientists can’t find anything wrong with it. (For now. They’re still looking.) Then all of the scientists (or at least most of them, in his field,) agree that the scientist got it right, and that he has discovered a fact.

For centuries, ever since these methods were developed during the European Enlightenment, people have been piling fact on fact. The idea is that each of these facts has been proven, that someone has observed and tested the idea, and that other people have tried to pick it apart. This isn’t because it’s wrong. But it’s based on the idea that you can’t really be confident in an idea until you’ve tested it, and that ideas that have been tested really hard and survived are a lot more likely to be true. The best part about that is when your pile of facts is really solid, you can pile more on. We, the educated people of the world, know so much more about how it works that our predecessors did. And because we know how it works, we are able to exert a lot more control over it. That’s how we get the Science that builds our cool devices, powers our world, and even the stuff that might kill us all some day.

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