A brief Introduction to the Scientific Method of Inquiry

The Scientific Method is an organized approach to observing nature. It seeks to provide reliable empirical evidence of natural events so that scientists can constantly improve their understanding of the natural world.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of applying the Scientific Method to observations of nature is the systematic elimination of bias, emotion, and personal perception. The Scientific Method has evolved to counter the intrusion of religious, societal and cultural beliefs into scientific investigation, so that results obtained over long periods of time will be valid for any scientist in any country.

The order of scientific inquiry generally follows four steps, though this order and the steps themselves are completely flexible without affecting the reliability and validity of results. The steps are generally as follows:

~Observe and describe a natural phenomenon using the senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and sometimes taste);

~Develop a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon;

~Develop and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis;

~Study the results of the experiment to determine if the hypothesis is supported or not supported, or if the experiment is inconclusive.

This simplistic listing misses, however, the looping nature of scientific inquiry. A better view of the Scientific Method is to imagine a circle, with the separate steps leading always back to a new beginning: Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment, Conclude, Observe anew, Refine the Hypothesis, Experiment again, Improve the Conclusion, and so on.

This more accurate way to think of the Scientific Method is iterative; that is, it repeats itself with the goal of refining results with each trip through the process. When viewed as a never-ending circle, the Scientific Method cannot be numbered, and cannot have a specific beginning and end. A scientist today can easily review the observations of Leonardo Da Vinci and continue his work some 500 years later, building on his detailed notes and drawings to inform new experiments and fresh conclusions.

This iterative and recursive Scientific Method also admits more “steps,” such as prediction of the outcomes of similar phenomena to the one being examined, and collection and analysis of meta-data (data from many observations from many sources).

No matter what path a scientist takes through the cycle of the Scientific Method, peer scrutiny is vital. Experiments must be repeatable to be reliable, data and results must be available for examination and refutation, and false hypotheses must be discarded. What some laypersons view as scientists sniping at one another is really their quest for strengthening their findings through peer criticism. Science is strengthened by argument, by highlighting weaknesses and searching for supporting evidence.

The Scientific Method has changed over time to include a greater role for modeling and simulation than was prevalent 400 years ago. With the rise of ever-more powerful computers, scientists today can design software to replicate extremely complex natural systems, from weather patterns to galactic life cycles, and observe these models.

While no one person can be credited with inventing the process of systematically examining the natural world, several early scientists contributed more than many others. These are Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Robert Boyle, all of whom examined phenomena and capitalized on their natural curiosity to develop experiments to explain the phenomena.