What is the Scientific Method?
Twitter sent me this video about the scientific method yesterday, so I thought I’d share it via this blog.
The term Scientific Method is one that I find it difficult to define satisfactorily, despite having worked in science for over 25 years. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Scientific Method as
..a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
This is obviously a very general description, and the balance between the different aspects described is very different in different disciplines. For this reason when people try to define what the Scientific Method is for their own field, it doesn’t always work for others even within the same general area. It’s fairly obvious that zoology is very different from nuclear physics, but that doesn’t mean that either has to be unscientific. Moreover, the approach used in laboratory-based experimental physics can be very different from that used in astrophysics, for example. What I like about this video, though, is that it emphasizes the role of uncertainty in how the process works. I think that’s extremely valuable, as the one thing that I think should define the scientific method across all disciplines is a proper consideration of the assumptions made, the possibility of experimental error, and the limitations of what has been done. I wish this aspect of science had more prominence in media reports of scientific breakthroughs. Unfortunately these are almost always presented as certainties, so if they later turn out to be incorrect it looks like science itself has gone wrong. I don’t blame the media entirely about this, as there are regrettably many scientists willing to portray their own findings in this way.
When I give popular talks about my own field, Cosmology, I often look for appropriate analogies or metaphors in television programmes about forensic science, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which I used to watch quite regularly (to the disdain of many of my colleagues and friends). Cosmology is methodologically similar to forensic science because it is generally necessary in both these fields to proceed by observation and inference, rather than experiment and deduction: cosmologists have only one Universe; forensic scientists have only one scene of the crime. They can collect trace evidence, look for fingerprints, establish or falsify alibis, and so on. But they can’t do what a laboratory physicist or chemist would typically try to do: perform a series of similar experimental crimes under slightly different physical conditions. What we have to do in cosmology is the same as what detectives do when pursuing an investigation: make inferences and deductions within the framework of a hypothesis that we continually subject to empirical test. This process carries on until reasonable doubt is exhausted, if that ever happens. Of course there is much more pressure on detectives to prove guilt than there is on cosmologists to establish “the truth” about our Cosmos. That’s just as well, because there is still a very great deal we do not know about how the Universe works.Follow @telescoper