Scientific Method - Elements of The Scientific Method

Elements of The Scientific Method

There are different ways of outlining the basic method used for scientific inquiry. The scientific community and philosophers of science generally agree on the following classification of method components. These methodological elements and organization of procedures tend to be more characteristic of natural sciences than social sciences. Nonetheless, the cycle of formulating hypotheses, testing and analyzing the results, and formulating new hypotheses, will resemble the cycle described below.

Four essential elements of the scientific method are iterations, recursions, interleavings, or orderings of the following:
  • Characterizations (observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry)
  • Hypotheses (theoretical, hypothetical explanations of observations and measurements of the subject)
  • Predictions (reasoning including logical deduction from the hypothesis or theory)
  • Experiments (tests of all of the above)

Each element of the scientific method is subject to peer review for possible mistakes. These activities do not describe all that scientists do (see below) but apply mostly to experimental sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, and biology). The elements above are often taught in the educational system as "the scientific method".

The scientific method is not a single recipe: it requires intelligence, imagination, and creativity. In this sense, it is not a mindless set of standards and procedures to follow, but is rather an ongoing cycle, constantly developing more useful, accurate and comprehensive models and methods. For example, when Einstein developed the Special and General Theories of Relativity, he did not in any way refute or discount Newton's Principia. On the contrary, if the astronomically large, the vanishingly small, and the extremely fast are removed from Einstein's theories — all phenomena Newton could not have observed — Newton's equations are what remain. Einstein's theories are expansions and refinements of Newton's theories and, thus, increase our confidence in Newton's work.

A linearized, pragmatic scheme of the four points above is sometimes offered as a guideline for proceeding:

  1. Define a question
  2. Gather information and resources (observe)
  3. Form an explanatory hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner
  5. Analyze the data
  6. Interpret the data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  7. Publish results
  8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The iterative cycle inherent in this step-by-step method goes from point 3 to 6 back to 3 again.

While this schema outlines a typical hypothesis/testing method, it should also be noted that a number of philosophers, historians and sociologists of science (perhaps most notably Paul Feyerabend) claim that such descriptions of scientific method have little relation to the ways science is actually practiced.

The "operational" paradigm combines the concepts of operational definition, instrumentalism, and utility:

The essential elements of scientific method are operations, observations, models, and a utility function for evaluating models.

  • Operation - Some action done to the system being investigated
  • Observation - What happens when the operation is done to the system
  • Model - A fact, hypothesis, theory, or the phenomenon itself at a certain moment
  • Utility Function - A measure of the usefulness of the model to explain, predict, and control, and of the cost of use of it. One of the elements of any scientific utility function is the refutability of the model. Another is its simplicity, on the Principle of Parsimony more commonly known as Occam's Razor.

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