What is the scientific method?

by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 2001

Many students (are you one?) confuse the scientific method and the steps of a science fair project. A science fair project is meant to simulate the steps a scientist uses, but the scientific method is broader.

Basically, the scientific method is a method for rationally or logically drawing conclusions about the world around us. Put this way, it is not just scientists that might use the scientific method: it is also used by historians and other social scientists, by criminal investigators, by doctors and engineers, and by any one who wants an organized way to intelligently solve a problem.

The scientific method is not the perfect method, and it cannot answer every question. However, it is a very useful tool for studying a wide variety of topics, and most of the scientific and technological knowledge that we take for granted in our society was obtained using it.

Every can use the scientific method in a general way in every day life: Why won't the car start? What is making me sneeze so much? Which candidate for public office should I vote for? It is also very important for ALL students to understand the scientific method because science is used and abused so much in our society today. Many people who claim to have scientific knowledge have influence over how we live, in big and small ways. Some of this "knowledge" may not be agreed upon by scientists, and some may even be rejected by most scientists. Many scientists these days forget the last step of the scientific method, listed below (did you know it?). Besides that, what is a scientist, anyway? How about you--if you use the scientific method!

The following summarizes parts of the scientific method. Keep in mind that this is not a blueprint set in stone; this is a general method for rationally reaching conclusions about a topic.

1. Hypothesis--We have a question about something we have noticed and are curious about. We formulate a hypothesis: this is a proposed answer to our question. The best hypothesis will be one we can clearly check to prove true or false.

2. Observations--We then make observations to check or test our hypothesis. This might be an experiment, if our hypothesis is something we can check in a laboratory, or it might mean collecting information (data) on something happening in nature or that has happened in the past. It might also be a computer simulation of something that happens in the real world (warning: don't forget that the computer simulation is only a simulation, and the real world may be different!).

3. Analysis--We take our data and process it. This might be simply organizing the data; it might be graphing it; it might be using a supercomputer to do massive mathematical analysis of our data. Whatever we do, this leads us to the next step.

4. Conclusion--We use our results to decide if our hypothesis was correct or not. Success in science does not necessary mean we find our hypothesis right. Success means we were honest and rational in deciding if it was right or wrong. It has been said that a good scientist is one that tries to prove himself or herself wrong. (Why?) It is also the case that often in science answering one question leads to several others--because we find something else to be curious about.

5. Verification--This is the last step, that many students aren't taught--and even many scientists forget! After we reach our conclusion, we describe everything we did and our conclusions to other scientists. These other scientists can repeat what we did and either confirm our results or maybe find mistakes. If our results withstand this scrutiny, then it may be added to the cumulative body of scientific knowledge, and other scientists will use it to go further. This does not necessary make it true: it simply means that it is the best current scientific understanding.

© 1999, 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 29 July 2001.
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