Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Scientific Method In Layman's Terms

Okay, kids, since so many people seem to be using the term “theory” so wrongly, I thought I’d brush off the old textbooks and try to give an updated, layman’s explanation of the Scientific Method. I hope this helps to clear up some of the confusion, although I doubt it, since most of the people misusing the term either never bothered to learn it in the first place, or are misusing it on purpose.

To do this, I’m going to use Joe Scientist and his walk through the woods to demonstrate different portions of the Scientific Method.
Let’s walk together through the woods with Joe Scientist. As we do, Joe notices that ants like to spend time around certain types of plants. This is an Observation, the first step in the Scientific Method. Sometimes, observations take the form of measurements, like figuring out the speed of light or how heavy a block of wood is. But for now, we’re going to go with Joe’s observation that ants like to spend time around a specific type of plant. We’ll call it the Ant Plant. Cute, huh?

Joe, being a good scientist, becomes curious about why the ants like the Ant Plant so much. So, he thinks for a while about all he knows about the world, from biology to chemistry to physics and beyond. He then comes up with a Hypothesis, about why the ants like the Ant Plant. A hypothesis is an educated guess about why something is the way it is or why something does what it does. Joe Scientist, from his study of biology and chemistry, knows that ants like sweet things and that some plants make sweet things like berries. So, Joe’s hypothesis is that the Ant Plant makes sweet berries, and the ants have discovered this.

Joe’s next step is to see if the Ant Plant has any berries. He makes a Prediction that says the Ant Plant will have berries right now, since the can see the ants around the Ant Plant, and that they will be sweet. So, he checks the Ant Plant to see if it has berries, and it does! Great, the first half of Joe’s hypothesis has already been proven. Now he gathers some of the berries and takes them back to his lab.

When he gets there, he mushes them all up and tests them to see if they have a lot of sugar in them, which would make them sweet, and thus make the ants like to hang around the Ant Plant. This is his Experiment. If the berries are very sweet, then Joe can then move on and find another Ant Plant, gather its berries and test them. If enough Ant Plants have very sweet berries, he can then propose a Theory that says that the ants like the Ant Plant because it has sweet berries. If the berries are sour, then Joe has to go back to his hypothesis and come up with a different reason for the ants to like the Ant Plant. This is how the Scientific Method works.

To summarize:

1. Observations are made.
2. A hypothesis is created based on the observations.
3. A prediction is made using the hypothesis.
4. Experiments are performed to confirm or deny the predictions.
5. If enough predictions are proven true using a given hypothesis, it can then be called a theory. If the predictions don’t match the experimental data, then the hypothesis is wrong in some way, and needs to be changed, so that it can make accurate predictions.

Some things to take note of:

1. A theory is only as good as its predictive ability. So, if a hypothesis can’t be used to make predictions which can be tested, then the Scientific Method breaks down, since you can’t go any further.

2. There are several things in science that are called “Laws”. These are truisms, axioms or empirical observations like Moore’s Law, or else they are equations that have always held true under a given set of conditions, like the Combined Gas Law.

3. Sometimes, a mathematician or theoretical scientist, comes up with a hypothesis based on the mathematics that they have done, makes his or her predictions and then tests them much later. This was done with Einstein’s Relativity, and the mathematics were so convincing that Relativity was accepted as a theory long before many experiments were done, because it explained how things worked so well. It was accepted because so many things fit so smoothly together within it’s mathematical framework. So, sometimes a theory can be accepted, albeit just as temporarily as any other theory, because it explains observations that have already been made.

I hope this helps, and if it seems to condescend a bit, I’m sorry, but from the level of scientific illiteracy I’m seeing on the Internet, on the news and in my own personal life here in America, maybe it’s not “dumbed down” enough. That makes me very sad.

I’d also like to point out that things like the “Theory” of Intelligent Design and the “Theory” of Spontaneous Generation are not theories at all, because they are not shored up by rigorous testing. In other words, there can be no experiments performed, like in the ID, or else when there were experiments performed, the idea was shot down. Can you imagine the experiment it would require to determine that there was a designer for the rabbit? I know I can’t.

If you’d like a more in-depth and scholarly discussion of this topic, please check out the Wikipedia page for the Scientific Method.


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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain


Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu