What is the scientific method?
What do you think about when you hear the words, “the scientific method?” Do you picture a bunch of dusty old men in lab coats, fiddling with beakers?
Those scientists might be using the scientific method, but so are lots of other scientists doing all kinds of interesting, lively things. In fact, you yourself even use parts of the scientific method every day to make decisions.
At its heart, the scientific method is just a process that scientists use to verify new facts. It’s sort of like a checklist, and by going through it one step at a time, you can be sure that you’re coming up with the right facts. No one wants to discover the cure for cancer only to find that they skipped a step and the “cure” actually doesn’t do anything.
Although the scientific method is one of the most important things that humans have ever invented (it’s how we know anything with certainty!), it’s not entirely formalized. As a result, the steps you see in the process might vary from place to place.
As we dive in, you can follow along, too! At each step we’ll give an example, but you can also think of something that you would do if you were studying a scientific problem.
Here we go:
Steps in the Scientific Method
1 – Make an Observation
You can’t study what you don’t know is there. This is why scientists are so curious—they’re always looking for patterns, trends, questions, and problems that we don’t understand. Once a scientist finds a really interesting pattern that they want to know more about, they move onto the next step.
For example, let’s say that you notice a lot of people are drinking alkaline water because they think it’s healthier for them, but you’re not sure if it actually is or not.
Your turn: What’s something that you find very interesting that you wish you knew more about?
2 – Ask a Question
Once a scientist finds an interesting thing to study, they need to ask a question that hopefully they can answer.
A question that you could ask about alkaline water might be, “Does alkaline water actually make people healthier?”
Your turn: What is a question you’d like the answer to regarding the interesting thing from step one?
3 – Do Background Research
To find out the answer to your question, you need to know what potential answers are. That’s where background research comes in, remembering that not everything you read online is true. Use reliable sources, like Google Scholar…and untamedscience.com!
In our alkaline water example, you could search online for articles or published scientific papers showing how people change when they drink alkaline water. You could look at overall health, or specific thinks like lung function, blood pH, etc…
Your turn: Spend a minute or two searching online for some possible answers to your question from step two.
4 – Form a Hypothesis
A hypothesis is a statement of what you think the answer to your question is. It’s different from the question you formed because it’s answering the question you developed with a specific prediction that you’ll go on to test. A good hypothesis should be falsifiable, meaning that it’s possible to prove it wrong.
Let’s say that your background research showed there wasn’t much of an effect on overall health. A hypothesis for this might be: “Drinking alkaline water has no effect on how well people feel.”
Your turn: What is a potential hypothesis that you might have for your question?
5 – Conduct an Experiment
How do you find an answer to your hypothesis? You conduct an experiment to test it! Depending on what a scientist is studying, an experiment can be very quick or take years—some experiments have even been going on for hundreds of years!
Designing a good experiment is a whole industry that some scientists spend their whole careers working on. But any good science experiment must always serve its one main function: to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
To develop an experiment for the alkaline water example, you’d need a creative way to get people to drink normal and alkaline water, and ask them to rank how well they feel after drinking each.
Your turn: What is a good experiment that you could set up to test your hypothesis?
6 – Analyze Results and Draw a Conclusion
This is what we’ve all been waiting for—what is the answer to the question? In this step, scientists take a step back, look at the data, and decide whether to accept or reject the hypothesis. Sometimes the conclusion is pretty straightforward, but scientists always do statistical tests just to make sure they’re reading the results correctly.
Now that you’ve collected your data from the alkaline water experiment, let’s say that there is no real difference in how well people feel based on what type of water they drink. In this case, you’d accept (or, fail to reject) your original hypothesis. Alkaline water would just be a scam that didn’t really affect how well people feel.
Your turn: What would make you think that your hypothesis is correct or incorrect?
7 – Report Your Results
You’ve just tested an important piece of information. It’s something that nobody else in the world knows. What good is that knowledge if you keep it to yourself? The final step of the scientific process is to report your results. Scientists generally report their results in scientific journals, where each report has been checked over and verified by other scientists in a process called peer review.
If your alkaline water study were real, then you’d need to find a relevant journal and submit your article to them for publication.
How do scientists use the scientific method in real life?
Although the process above sounds pretty rigid, it’s actually quite fluid and adaptable. Some scientists never really conduct true “experiments” and focus on other things instead. Taxonomists, for example, focus on how to best classify organisms. They don’t go through the whole process of hypothesis testing and data analysis.
Without the scientific method, people might make up random explanations to problems with no real data to back it up. Thanks to the scientific method, the sum of human knowledge has grown tremendously and hopefully will continue to improve our lives.