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The scientific method is more than just hypotheses and experiments. In this lesson, we’ll explore the themes and variations that make up the world of science.

The Scientific Method: Steps, Terms & Examples
(Video available on March 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Is There Only One Scientific Method?

When you first took science class in school, you probably learned the basic steps of a scientific investigation. You’ve likely heard of words like ‘hypothesis,’ ‘experiment,’ and ‘observation.’ You may have even memorized a prescribed set of steps. The scientific method is a set of procedures that scientists follow in order to gain knowledge about the world.

However, the steps involved in the scientific method vary widely among the different scientific disciplines. Chemists follow the method a bit differently than psychologists. Geologists and botanists have their own unique methods. So, is there really one scientific method that encompasses all of science? To find out, we’ll need to learn more about the scientific process.

Key Elements of the Scientific Method

There are six key steps that tend to characterize the scientific method. The first step is the question. This is the part where a scientist proposes the problem that he or she wants to solve. A well-conceived question usually leads to a hypothesis, a potential answer to the question at hand. Sometimes, hypotheses look more like predictions. The scientist predicts what the outcome will be when he or she tests the hypothesis. The scientist’s test is also called the experiment. Experiments are ordered investigations that are intended to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Important data comes from performing an experiment.

The scientist has to make observations of the results that he or she gets from the experiment. An observation is a statement of knowledge gained through the senses or through the use of scientific equipment. Observations are crucial for collecting data. Once the results are in, the scientist must begin the analysis. Data analysis involves comparing the results of the experiment to the prediction posed by the hypothesis. Based on the observations he or she made, the scientist has to determine whether the hypothesis was correct. He or she then sums up his or her findings with a conclusion. The conclusion of a scientific process is a statement of whether the original hypothesis was supported or refuted by the observations gathered.

The six steps of the scientific method do not always occur in the same order
The elements of the scientific method

The scientific method usually employs all six of the steps I mentioned, but the steps don’t always occur in the same order. Real scientists may go back and repeat steps many times before they come to any conclusions. It’s actually better to use the word ‘elements’ to describe the steps, since the first step, question, does not always come first. Sometimes, for example, it’s an observation that came first and spawned the initial question. Likewise, observations that are made during an experiment can inspire more questions that scientists have to answer. The scientific method is much more fluid than you might think. Let me show you how the steps can feed back and branch out from one another with an example from my own experience.

Feedback Loops in the Scientific Method

Last weekend, I had a minor ordeal with my Internet connection at home. I had started up my laptop, and I was frustrated to find that I couldn’t get on the Internet. I made the observation that my laptop wasn’t receiving an Internet connection. I asked myself a question: Is something wrong with the Internet itself, or was it just my laptop? One way to begin answering this question was to check the connection on the desktop computer. Quickly, I formed a hypothesis: If the Internet isn’t working on the desktop either, then the problem is beyond my laptop computer. The experiment I performed was to check the desktop’s connection, and my resulting observation was that the Internet didn’t work there. So, by analyzing the evidence, I was able to form my first conclusion: Nothing is wrong with my laptop, and something is wrong with the Internet connection.

Now, this conclusion answered my first question. But it still didn’t get my Internet to work. So I had to pose another question: Where exactly was the problem occurring in the chain of Internet devices? Was it the cord between the modem and the router? The cord between the router and my computer? Or was the problem in the router itself? I had to form another hypothesis: If both my Internet cords are properly plugged in, then there must be a problem with the router. My experiment was to check both cords and the router. My observation was that both cords were plugged in and that the router was off. I analyzed the evidence, and my conclusion was that I couldn’t connect to the Internet because my router was off.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Once I came up with one conclusion, it left me with another question that I needed to answer. From every question I got a hypothesis, from every hypothesis I got an experiment, and from every experiment I got observations that led me to more conclusions. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story. Eventually, I figured out that my router was unplugged and solved my Internet problem by plugging it back in. The important thing to see here is that the scientific method doesn’t follow a straight line. It loops back on itself in countless ways. It branches out into new investigations. There’s never just one way to answer a question.

Fluidity and Community in Science

Keep in mind that the key elements of the scientific method are not the only things that keep science moving forward. It’s not nearly as rigid as many textbooks describe. In addition to hypotheses, experiments, and analyses, science requires more subjective processes like creativity, experience, and intuition. In my problem with the Internet, I needed to reference my basic knowledge of computerized technology. I knew from experience that unplugged cords were most likely the cause of the problem, but I also brainstormed for a minute or two about other possible causes. I have two curious cats and a husband who often changes the arrangement of our cords on the power strip. It’s dusty under our desk, and the router is getting old. Any of these factors could have affected the connection. I didn’t end up pursuing those other possibilities, but I did use plenty of creativity while trying to solve my problem. If it had turned out that my problem was more complicated than an unplugged cord, then I would have had a handful of other ideas to try.

Many scientists have used a combination of skills to develop their ideas. Take Charles Darwin, for example. He is credited with devising the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s a biological theory, but Darwin wasn’t a biologist. He was a naturalist who studied not only plants and animals but anything to do with the natural world. Darwin read up on geological principles written by Charles Lyell. He studied theories of economics and population by Thomas Malthus. He bred fancy pigeons and collected natural artifacts on his farm. And yes, he took an amazing voyage to study exotic creatures around the world. Darwin wouldn’t have come up with his ideas about evolution without combining all of these influences. It took some creativity and twenty years of research to put all his ideas together. Darwin’s work shows that the scientific method is really a fluid, integrated process.

It’s worth mentioning that scientific studies are kept in check by communities around the world. Most scientific journals employ a process of peer review, whereby scientists critique each other’s work and decide whether it meets the standards of the scientific community. Scientists have to pool their resources and check in with one another before they can perform any significant work. But scientists also compete with one another to discover new things. They know that the prize goes to the scientist who gets things right and publishes first. Even Darwin had to compete with other naturalists like Alfred Wallace and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. But he also worked closely with his friends, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley, who also studied biology and helped him develop his theories. As you can see, the scientific method does not work in isolation. It functions within a community, both inside and outside the realm of science.

Lesson Summary

So, it turns out there really is no one way to follow the scientific method. There are key elements that should appear in any investigation, but science is done differently in every profession, and no one follows the exact same process

The scientific method describes the processes by which scientists gain knowledge about the world. It’s characterized by six key elements: Questions, Hypotheses, Experiments, Observations, Analyses, and Conclusions. These elements are interrelated steps, so they don’t always function in the same order. Other, more subjective skills like creativity, experience, and intuition also have a place in the scientific method. Science is characterized by professional competition and develops through the collaboration of scientists in the worldwide community.

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