The Scientific Research Method

The scientific method is the means by which researchers are able to make conclusive statements about their studies with a minimum of bias. The interpretation of data, for example the result of a new drug study, can be laden with bias. The researcher often has a personal stakes in the results of his work.

What is the purpose of the Scientific Method?

The scientific method is the means by which researchers are able to make conclusive statements about their studies with a minimum of bias. The interpretation of data, for example the result of a new drug study, can be laden with bias. The researcher often has a personal stakes in the results of his work. As any skilled debater knows, just about any opinion can be justified and presented as fact. In order to minimize the influence of personal stakes and biased opinions, a standard method of testing a hypothesis is expected to be used by all members of the scientific community.

How does the Scientific Method Work?

The first step to using the scientific method is to have some basis for conducting your research. This is based on observed phenomena that is either directly or indirectly related to the specific subject matter of your proposed research. For example, you may have observed that Drug A is effective in treating an illness (Disease A) caused my Virus A. A new illness (Disease B) has arisen that mimics some symptoms of Disease A, but with variation (such as the patient with Disease B has swollen lymph nodes and a low grade fever instead of no swelling and a high grade fever). Outbreaks of Disease B occur near outbreaks of Disease A. These are the observations you make in your first step of using the Scientific Method.

The next step is to form a hypothesis to explain some aspect of your observations. You speculate that the virus that causes Disease B is either Virus A or it is related to Virus A. Your hypothesis is that the cause of Disease A and Disease B is the same virus.

Now that you have a hypothesis, you are ready to test it. You must now use your hypothesis to predict other phenomena that have not yet been observed. You know that Drug A will wipe out Disease A. If Disease B is caused by the same virus, you reason that the same drug should be effective.

The final step of the scientific method is to rigorously test your prediction. Remember, you cannot "prove" your hypothesis. You can only fail to disprove it. While this is an example of how the scientific method is used in everyday research and hypothesis testing, it is also the basis of creating theories and laws.

The scientific method requires a hypothesis to be eliminated if experiments repeatedly contradict predictions. No matter how great a hypothesis sounds, it is only as good as it's ability to consistently predict experimental results. It should also be noted that a theory or hypothesis is not meaningful if it is not quantitative and testable. If a theory does not allow for predictions and experimental research to confirm these predictions, than it is not a scientific theory.

What is a Hypothesis?

It is important to distinguish between a hypothesis, and a theory or law. Although in everyday language, people sometimes use these terms interchangeably, they have very distinct connotations in the scientific community.

A hypothesis is a 'small' cause and effect statement about a specific set of circumstances. It represents a belief that a researcher possesses before conducting a satisfactory number of experiments that could potentially disprove that belief. For example, you open your refrigerator at home and are greeted with a horrible sour smell. You decide that the milk must have gone bad. This is your hypothesis. It is based on the phenomena your are observing right now (sour smell) as well as knowledge from past experience (bad milk has a sour smell). You test your hypothesis by opening the container of milk and smelling it. You find that the milk doesn't smell sour after all, so you must come up with another hypothesis (maybe it is the leftover lasagna from last week!).

A theory or law in the world of science is a hypothesis, or many hypotheses, which have undergone rigorous tests and have never been disproved. There is no set number of tests or a set length of time in which a hypothesis can become a theory or a law. A hypothesis becomes a theory or law when it is the general consensus of the scientific community that it should be so. Theories and laws are not as easily discarded as hypotheses.

Misapplications of the Scientific Method

A common error encountered by people who claim to use the scientific method is a lack of testing. A hypothesis brought about by common observations or common sense does not have scientific validity. As stated above, even though a good debater may be quite convincing as he conveys the merits of his theory, logical arguments are not an acceptable replacement for experimental testing.

Although the purpose of the scientific method is to eliminate researcher bias, an investigation of the raw data from an experiment is always a good idea. Researchers sometimes toss out data that does not support their hypothesis. This isn't necessarily done with the intent of deception, it is sometimes done because the researcher so passionately believes in his hypothesis that he assumes unsupportive data must have been obtained in error. Other times, outside forces (such as the corporation sponsoring and conducting the research) may put extreme pressure on the researcher to get specific results.

The best way for the scientific community, and the general public, to deal with these errors is to promote multiple, independent experiments. We are all familiar with "breaking news" (that seems to break nearly every day!) about a new miracle drug or herbal remedy. In most cases, this "breaking news" was released by a single source--usually a source with financial stakes in the new miracle. Look for multiple sources to confirm a hypothesis before you hand your money over for a new product. If possible, also try to discover where the funding came from in these experiments. You may have three different lab reports, all confirming that Drug A is the most effective cure, but if all three laboratories are funded by the same drug company-you may want to raise an eyebrow.

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