The Scientific Method: Procedure, Creativity, and Blunders

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Joy of Science

By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Scientists study the natural world utilizing the scientific method, but this method didn’t came to be overnight. It emerged gradually, as humans began to realize the great scientific principle that many aspects of the physical universe are predictable. However, some of the greatest scientific discoveries are due to the unpredictable nature of creativity.

A hand writing the concept word 'Hypothesis' among other concept words.
The scientific method consists of question, observation, hypothesis, prediction, and testing.(Image:ibreakstock/Shutterstock)

The Scientific Process Is Nonlinear

Science is a procedure, and like any other process, requires an exact framework. The scientific method has four parts.

The first involves observations, experiments, data collection about the natural world, and data systemization in tables. The second part entails seeing patterns and systematic behavior in those data. The third step is providing a hypothesis and devising natural laws. Last, but not least, there are predictions. And then the cycle begins anew.

Well, at least the ideal version is something like that, but scientific discovery seldom follows this exact idealized path. Dmitri Mendeleev didn’t really follow this precise pattern for his great discovery of the periodic table. Mendeleev had 63 chemical elements. Those were his data, and he saw patterns in those data.

Dmitri Mendeleev and the Periodic Table

Portrait photograph of Dmitri Mendeleev.
Dmitri Mendeleev used his creativity and intuition to frame the periodic table. (Image: Germansociety2014/Public domain)

For example, Mendeleev grouped together rubidium, potassium, and sodium. They are three elements that are all soft, silvery metals, all react violently with water, and all combine with chlorine and fluorine in one-to-one ratios. He believed that due to their striking similarities, they could be placed in a vertical column of elements.

But Mendeleev had to ignore equally obvious and compelling similarities in other elements. For example, iron, cobalt, and nickel. These are all silvery metals. They are all quite hard and react in a one-to-one ratio with oxygen. And they are all magnetic.

Mendeleev put these three elements side by side in his table. He ignored their similarities and did not put them in a vertical column. Hence, he had to have some kind of intuitive hunches about how to put the table together. The point is that it was not just a straightforward process: it involved many creative leaps.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Science and Creativity

Another great example of an intuitive leap is that of Isaac Newton and his understanding of the motions in the heavens and on Earth. In the 1660s, Newton’s contemporaries saw all the motions of planets and stars in the heavens as completely distinct from the motions on the Earth, but he had another intuitive idea.

He thought, perhaps these motions are in some way related. He noticed that when some objects are dropped they fall straight down and that other objects adopt a curving path.

He then imagined that if one could throw an object really hard so that it actually went into orbit around the Earth, then it would adopt the same curving path that one sees characteristic of the Moon, the stars, and the planets.

The Creative Perspective

Therefore, Isaac Newton’s discovery was based on adopting a different and creative perspective. He saw the connection between motions on Earth and motions in the heavens. That was the great intuitive leap. No one else had ever seen the universe that way.

Concept creative idea with yellow paper and several lines shaped like a glowing lamp.
Scientists often claim to have intuitive moments in the shower or in their dreams. (Image: Piyapong89/Shutterstock)

The stories of intuitive leaps often take on mythic proportions. Scientists claim to have these intuitive moments and these great insights in their dreams, or they have an epiphany while taking a shower.

And it’s always this critical nonlinear aspect of the scientific process that defines great discoveries. Something that cannot really be established by strict and methodical scientific steps.

Science is an intensely creative process because someone has to constantly make it up as they go along, and the scientific method only gives them the loosest, vaguest sort of a guide or roadmap as to how they might proceed.

Learn more about isotopes and radioactivity.

To Err Is Human

There are other human aspects of science that add to its intrigue and complexity. Scientists often make mistakes, but science is a self-correcting process. It’s a collective process in which anytime a scientist comes up with a finding, another scientist comes along and attempts verification.

Honest errors in technique and execution are just part of the game. They are inevitable, and the demand for reproducibility eventually corrects and eliminates these mistakes.

One great example is a recent report that came out from Tulane University’s Chemistry Department. They published a widely cited report about the intensified environmental effects of a certain combination of pollutants.

What it essentially said was suppose there are two pollutants: A and B. And suppose even a very small amount of each one, say one part in a million, is dangerous. What the Tulane researchers claimed was that when these two chemicals are together in much lower concentration, they are, because of their combined effects, much more dangerous than they would be individually.

The Environmental Protection Agency

And that is a huge problem for the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, because it has to set toxicity limits for various chemicals. Moreover, they have to not only define the toxicity of thousands of chemicals but also every possible combination of those chemicals.

There are millions or perhaps billions of different combinations, and it becomes impossible to identify the potential risks. Therefore, they had a potential disaster on their hands.

The Tulane researchers published the article, but when they tried to reproduce it and conduct additional experiments, they were unable to do so. Consequently, after all this publicity, they had to retract some of their findings. That was a responsible and standard scientific practice, but nevertheless, certain science journalists accused them of fraud.

Learn more about entropy.

Scientific Error and Retraction

Another example is the famous case of cold fusion, in which two Utah researchers claimed to have discovered a new source of energy. They were wrong, and they were thoroughly embarrassed. Here again, many accused them of fraud. But scientists are only human, and this was just the kind of error that humans make. It was just another usual, albeit embarrassing, mistake.

Contrary to common belief, the scientific method is a tortuous nonlinear one and requires a high level of creativity. Every complex experiment has many variables, and sometimes procedural errors occur. These blunders and retractions are also part of the normal process of science and only to be expected.

Common Questions about the Scientific Method

Q: Is scientific discovery a linear process?

Science can be linear, but, in many instances, creativity outflanks straightforward methodology. There are critical nonlinear aspects of the scientific process.

Q: What are the four parts of the scientific method?

The first part of the scientific method involves observations, experiments, and data collection about the natural world. The second entails seeing patterns and systematic behavior in those data. The third is providing a hypothesis and devising natural laws. And last, there are predictions.

Q: How does the scientific community deal with inevitable scientific errors?

Science is a self-correcting process. Any time a scientist comes up with a finding or discovery, another scientist comes along and endeavors to verify it. It is inevitable, and the demand for reproducibility eventually corrects and eliminates mistakes.

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