Copyright 2015-2017 Byron Jennings, Sally Jennings at Speak-Read-Write.com
This is an article to build English skills for science.
Understanding the Scientific Method
What is the Scientific Method? The results of the use of the scientific method are all around us. Electricity is one result. TV is another result. The cell phone is also a result of the scientific method. In health care, the results include modern medicines and pacemakers that have allowed us to live longer. These inventions are all based on the use of the scientific method. The scientific method must be quite powerful, but what is it?
The amazing thing is that the scientific method is quite simple. It consists of a repeating cycle of observation, model building, predictions, and the testing of those predictions against new observations.
Let us consider these steps in more detail starting with observation. We observe that the sky is blue, the pillow is soft, or the candy tastes sweet. An observation is anything we learn about the world around us through our senses. Careful observation is the beginning of knowledge.
It is sometimes claimed that the scientific method begins with a question like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ That skips too far ahead. We must begin with an observation first. The observation is: the sky is blue. First we make an observation, then we ask a question about the observation, then we are ready to make a model to answer the question.
Science is the building of models for how the world around us works. What I call a model is sometimes called by other names: hypothesis, theory, or explanation. Each of these terms has a slightly different meaning. However the word ‘model’ gives the best idea of what science is about. These models are frequently, but not always, mathematical. The models give meaning and structure to the observations and are central to science. Examples of scientific models are the germ theory of disease, the special theory of relativity, and evolution.
To make a model, we must do an experiment. To do an experiment, we make observations under carefully controlled conditions. We cannot skip the observation step and immediately start model building. Even a genius like Albert Einstein needed to rely on observations before beginning to build a model. When we have made careful observations, we are ready to make a model. Building a model to describe an observation or set of observations is a creative activity, not a simple mechanical activity.
Any set of observations can be described by many different models. How do we decide which model to make to fit our observations? We use a technique called ‘simplicity’ to select and build one preferred model. A simple model is one with few assumptions.
The key to successful science is prediction. The constructed model is used to predict the result of observations or experiments that were not used in the construction of the model. What makes science work is that the models make testable predictions. Without the predictions we do not have science. A successful model is one with a track record of successful predictions.
We started with observations, went on to models, and have now come full circle to a new set of observations. If the model predictions are correct new tests are devised. If the predictions are incorrect, the model is modified or rejected.
That is all there is to it: make observations, make a model, make predictions, and repeat. From that simple prescription comes all the successes of science and the scientific method.
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