Understanding the Natural World Through Scientific Method

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Joy of Science

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

The scientific method is a systematic process that scientists have developed to discover the principles of the natural world. It is a complex and variable process that differs in detail from scientists to scientists and discovery to discovery. However, it is possible to idealize the process of the scientific method. How?

Image showing the scientific method as an ongoing process.
The scientific method is an ongoing process that ideally follows a set of given steps. (Image: arka38/Shutterstock)

Data Collection

The first step in most scientific studies is the collection of data. This includes observation, measurements, different types of experiments, and the tabulation of data.

The data have to be expanded into monographic studies of all the different kinds of objects or phenomena that exist. They can be collected specifically to test a prediction, but scientists primarily want to explore what is out there.

There are many scientific tests that relate to this sort of effort. For example, if an ornithologist wanted to describe all of the different bird species in a particular area, eventually he or she would bring these bird species together and catalog them based on their species.

Sometimes data are tabulated in high volumes and these tabulations are an essential part of science.

Recognition of Patterns

The second step in the scientific method is the recognition or the search for symmetries. Most scientists have a deeply held belief that there are regularities, patterns in the universe that can be found. Science helps in recognizing a pattern in nature from its vast amounts of data.

Sometimes, this step involves recognizing similarities among seemingly different phenomena, such as different forms of electricity. One of the great discoveries of the 19th century was that lightning and static electricity—electricity produced by electric eels, and electricity produced in batteries are all one and the same phenomenon.

Recognizing these very different physical phenomena as being one sort of thing is a process of synthesis. Sometimes the step is mathematical in nature—finding all sorts of disparate data and realizing that they all fit one simple equation.

Learn more about the quantum world.

Hypothesis and Prediction

Once a pattern is found, the scientist is going to propose a possible explanation in the form of a hypothesis.

Often, this step is just as straightforward as generalizing the synthesis. Once a hypothesis is well-tested, examined by many people, and seems to fit all the observations, it may assume the status of a natural law, that is, if it is mathematical in form, or perhaps a theory if it is more descriptive in nature.

Image showing the concept of hypothesis.
A hypothesis is a crucial step in the scientific method. (Image: ibreakstock/Shutterstock)

Any scientific hypothesis or theory must lead to unambiguous predictions. They have to be testable predictions; they require a new round of observation. If a scientist proposes a theory and there is no way to test it, then it is beyond the range of science.

Consequently, scientific theory can always be disproved. If a prediction is made and that prediction is unfulfilled, then the theory is wrong, or at least the theory has to be modified. A scientist can never completely prove a scientific theory or law because there is always some measurement yet to be made that is a prediction of that theory.

As a result, a single odd fact has the potential to undermine a long-standing theory. Each counterexample must be laboriously scrutinized.

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

The Paradigm

There is one more part of the four-part cycle of the scientific method. The idealized cycle always has to have a paradigm in the middle.

The paradigm is the prevailing system of expectation—the prevailing ideas about how the natural world works—because every observation, prediction, and hypothesis is made in the context of our present understanding of the natural world. For example, scientists would not ask questions about life on other worlds if they thought that life on Earth is a unique phenomenon.

Paradigms, therefore, gradually shift and the questions scientists ask also shift.

Learn more about celestial and terrestrial mechanics.

The Scientific Method Rarely Followed an Exact Cycle

It is seen that the scientific method is rarely followed as an exact cycle. Human imagination, intuition, and chance are vital elements of this process.

Image of the periodic table of elements.
In the late 19th century, Dmitri Mendeleev created the Periodic Table that included 63 different elements. (Image: Humdan/Shutterstock)

A historical example that is often cited as the epitome of the scientific method at work is Dmitri Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic table of the elements. Mendeleev had data on 63 different elements, and these were his input and observations. He expected to find order in this collection because he believed there couldn’t have been 63 independent and separate fundamental units of matter. He thought there had to be some underlying order, and so he looked for it.

That was his paradigm. He ordered the elements from left to right according to their weight. He ordered them in vertical columns when he saw elements that had very similar behavior. And thus, he built up this table where everything seemed to fit.

However, the table that resulted had a few gaps in it. Mendeleev predicted that those elements would be found. Sure enough, within a decade after he predicted the table, scientists found some of the elements that were missing from it.

Science Doesn’t Always Work in a Linear Fashion

In scientific inquiries, often there are anomalies that lead to new insights. When anomalies violate well-tested theories and laws, it usually means that the old theory or law is valid, but it is just a special case of more general law.

For example, according to Issac Newton’s hypothesis, all objects fall under the force of gravity. This can be proved by taking an object and dropping it, making it fall. One can take numerous objects and drop them, making them fall. It will lead scientists to develop a hypothesis that when objects are dropped, they fall.

However, if a scientist drops a helium-filled balloon, it wouldn’t fall. How can a scientist accommodate this into his or her theory? It does not mean that the idea is wrong, it means that the falling objects are part of a more general theory.

The scientific method is not a strict guidebook, but rather an idealized path to knowledge that often seems to fit better in retrospect. It is an elegant process for learning about the natural world.

Common Questions about the Scientific Method

Q: Identify the steps involved in the four-step cycle of scientific method.

The scientific method has a four-step cycle: Observation, Synthesis, Hypothesis, and Prediction.

Q: What does data collection include?

Data collection includes observation, measurements, different types of experiments, and the tabulation of data.

Q: What must a scientific hypothesis or theory do?

Any scientific hypothesis or theory must lead to unambiguous predictions.

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