Sunday, February 12, 2006

on the scientific method

I have read several claims recently that there is no such thing as "the scientific method."

Here is one such claim from some (IMO*) crackpot.
Here is another from someone who seems (also IMO) otherwise rational.

I have to weigh in on this.


These two examples, and all others that I have read, create a strawman, "The Scientific Method," (insert dramatic chord here) which they then define as a "special way of knowing things" that only scientists can, and must, use. This strawman is easy to knock down. That's the whole point of strawmen.

"The scientific method" is just a name given to the only process that has been observed to consistently produce reliable knowledge. It doesn't matter if you are a professional scientist or not. No special training is required. This is not a "special way of knowing." In order to really know anything, you follow the scientific method. It is not dogma, it is a process that everyone follows, consciously or not.

You may find it described in many ways. If those descriptions are honest, they will boil down to the following steps:

  1. Observation - Observe some aspect of the universe.
  2. Hypothesis - Form a hypothesis that is consistent with what you have observed.
  3. Prediction - Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
  4. Experiment - Test those predictions by experiments or further observations.
  5. Refinement - Modify the hypothesis (or the experiment) in light of your results.
  6. Repeat - Go to step 3. This is an ongoing process, repeat ad infinitum, nothing is ever proven except pure mathematics.

Sometimes a hypothesis is confirmed so often that only a complete idiot (IDiot?) would try to refute it.

Sometimes you observe something so obvious that you do not really need to go past step 2.

  1. Observation - I see water falling from the sky when I look out my window.
  2. Hypothesis - It is raining.
If you claim (2), any rational person who also observes (1) will agree with you.

However, let's go through the whole process:
  1. Observation - I see water falling from the sky when I look out my window.
  2. Hypothesis - It is raining.
  3. Prediction - If I step outside, I will get wet.
  4. Experiment - I step outside. Result - I don't get wet.
    Further Observation - There is a roof over my front stoop.
  5. Refinement - The hypothesis still seems sound. In this particular case it is the prediction and experiment that need to be refined. Remember, well designed and carefully conducted experiments are vital to accurate testing.
  6. (3) Prediction - If I step beyond the bounds of shelter, I will get wet.
  7. (4) Experiment - I walk to the sidewalk. Result - I get wet.

There is really no need to go any further with this simple example. The statement, "It is raining." is not really a hypothesis, it is an observed fact.
(scientific) fact
a controlled, repeatable and/or rigorously verified observation.
(scientific) law
a statement of an observed regularity among facts, often expressible as a simple mathematical relationship.
(scientific) theory
an integrated conceptual framework for reasoning about a class of phenomena, which is able to coordinate existing facts and laws and sometimes provide predictions of new ones.
Go to this site for a detailed explanation of the difference.
This is where I got the above definitions.**
Anyway, using this process (the scientific method, in case you have forgotten) is the only way a person can actually know anything. Without it, you don't know, you believe.

If I ask, "How do you know?"
and you reply, " My parents (my teacher/the Bible/my goldfish) told me."
then you don't really know, you believe.

We all conflate belief with knowledge. If we didn't, our educations would be pretty meaningless. The important thing is to consider the reliability of the source. But I'll leave that for another post.


UPDATE 6/18/07: over a year later, the 'rational' link is dead but the 'crackpot' link is still good. Go figure.

* This is often IMHO, but my opinion is most definitely not humble.
** Yes, I am aware that this is the same site referenced above with a false denial of the scientific method. The irony is not lost on me.

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