The Scientific Method The scientific method is a process used by scientists to conduct research in order to understand our world. The goal is for the research (both process and outcome) to be reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary. By using standard procedures and criteria, scientists aim to minimize outside influences of bias or prejudice when developing a theory.
The scientific method has four steps, although research work is not necessarily conducted by following these steps rigidly and in order. The steps are:
1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena. 2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. 3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations. 4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments. “If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature….. If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified. What is key in the description of the scientific method is the predictive power (the ability to get more out of the theory than you put in) of the hypothesis or theory, as tested by experiment. It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.” <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/>
While there may be consensus on the basic elements or premise of the scientific method, there is some debate over its merits. In the field, there are extreme camps with one saying it ‘always’ works while others argue it ‘never’ works. Spiece and Colosi are somewhere in between, noting that the “….historically accepted ‘scientific method’ is not a completely objective way to discover truths”, and that discoveries have occurred other ways, including by accident and happenstance. They provide the analogy of a crossword puzzle, where scientists build up knowledge piece by piece, fitting and discarding pieces as appropriate, with some pieces readily fitting together, while others don’t and may be discarded or re-used elsewhere.
Spiece and Colosi also discuss the social context of science, where societal beliefs are intermeshed with the scientific method. In various situations, the scientific method is not absolute as scientists can be put under pressure to come to politically favourable conclusions, or to solve problems that are seen as politically urgent. In other cases, scientists may be dependent on a donor with vested interests in specific outcomes, or seek to deny rivals access to key results. We have seen some of this played out in the US with disagreements between the science and ‘faith-based’ communities affecting federal funding. And of course, for many years science sometimes conformed to beliefs of the time and was used to ‘prove’ many notions we no longer accept, for example, that women and immigrants were intellectually inferior.
However, Speice and Colosi do note that social involvement in science is not always a bad thing. Competition between opposing theories can often lead to more productive results, and cooperation between scientists is critical because each brings his/her own experience and expertise.
As a methodology, the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) is often held up as the Gold Standard of the scientific method. Grossman and McKenzie argue that RCT is not a gold standard: that it is a good experimental design in some circumstances, but that's all.
Grossman, Jason. Mackenzie, Fiona J. The Randomized Controlled Trial: gold standard, or merely standard? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine - Volume 48, Number 4, Autumn 2005.
Spiece, Kelly R. and Joseph Colosi. Redefining the ‘Scientific Method’. The American Biology Teacher. Vol. 62: 1. January 2000.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/>
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