If you’re new to science, you may have heard of the ‘scientific process’ but you probably don’t understand what it really means. Simply put, the scientific process, also called the scientific method, is a series of steps used to understand the world around us based on evidence and observation. However, it can be difficult to understand what evidence can be considered reliable.
The Problem of Good Evidence
In science, we want our observations and evidence to be reliable. As such we need high standards of experimentation and control to ensure we don’t fall victim to our own assumptions, or to bad evidence.
For example, supposing you were told that shark attacks increase with ice cream sales. One might assume that this means ice cream sales increase the risk of shark attacks, but that’s not a reliable assumption because there could be other factors at play. For instance, further study might reveal that on hot days, people eat more ice cream and sharks swim closer to shore increasing the likelihood of shark attacks. The common denominator between the two observations is now heat. This hypothetical example is classically used when explaining causation versus correlation. In other words just because something may occur at the same time or appear to be related to something else (correlation), doesn’t mean that one is the cause of the other (causation).
Similarly, one could observe that a light in their house always flickers when they walk by and claim their home is haunted using the flickering light as ‘evidence’. They might not realize that umpteen things could cause a light to flicker, and a light flickering is not enough to indicate the presence of a ghost.
It is because of examples like these that we need to have high standards of evidence. This is why the scientific method has become standardized over time.
Steps of the Scientific Method
The scientific method begins with an observation, a question, a hypothesis and a prediction.
Observe and Question
An observation in science can be a great many things. You can make an observation that several papers have all reported the same thing, or that genes have certain sequences in common, or that when you touch a bare wire you got an electric shock (please don’t try that last one). You can also observe that when one thing occurs something else occurs with it.
Once you have observed something you can then begin to form a question about your observation. For instance if I observed stress decreased when lavender was given to people, I might ask if stress would also decrease when lavender was given to fish.
Create A Hypothesis and Prediction
A hypothesis can be considered an educated guess about a topic you are trying to understand. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “A proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without the assumption of truth”. In science when we are starting a project we begin by reviewing the current information we have about the subject and then constructing our hypothesis, so it’s not just some wild guess.
Going off the previous example, I could write; “Based on current literature, I hypothesize that lavender will decrease transport stress in zebrafish.”
The hypothesis does not assert that lavender will reduce transport stress in my experiment, but it is a starting point from which you can make a prediction. The hypothesis also has to be testable for the next steps of the process.
The prediction part is fairly self-explanatory. In the above example, I made my hypothesis, now I need to make a prediction about it. For instance, I could predict that when giving zebrafish lavender, the stress hormone cortisol will decrease.
Conduct an Experiment
After you have your hypothesis and prediction, you need to test them out. This is done through experimentation. Experiments also have conditions that need to be satisfied in order to properly test your hypothesis. A good experiment should be:
- Controlled: To ensure that what you observe isn’t a coincidence and to decrease possibilities of other errors. For instance you can have fish that get lavender and fish that don’t (the control group). You can also make sure all conditions, water temperature, feed type, tank size, stay the same between the treatment and control to minimize the risk of something besides the lavender affecting the cortisol levels.
- Repeatable: If you get different results each time you run the same study, can you trust the information? It’s good practice to repeat the experiment several times to assure yourself and others of your results, and its not uncommon to have outliers. For instance maybe one time you were too rough when handling the fish and it affected their cortisol levels. If you do the experiment more than once you can more easily identify what the normal response to the lavender is vs an outlier.
- Blinded: This one is somewhat optional, but still a good idea. Basically when a study is blinded the researcher isn’t privy to what animals received what treatment to prevent bias. Blinding helps add credibility to your results because it prevents the researcher from seeing what they want to see instead of what actually occurred. I say this is optional because sometimes it can’t be done depending on what kind of experiment you’re doing.
- Having at least 2 variables: Independent and Dependent: For instance, you could have lavender as the independent variable, and cortisol as the dependent. The independent variable effects a change on the dependent.
Measure Your Results & Make a Conclusion
After you have performed your experiment, and collected your data, you need to go back to your hypothesis and decide whether it is true or false. This usually involves statistics to compare your control group to your treatment group. But that’s a discussion all on its own. Suppose you found that there was a significant decrease in cortisol of fish who were given lavender compared to those who didn’t receive any. Using cortisol as an indicator of fish stress, you can then accept your hypothesis that stress was reduced due to lavender. Supposing your results were insignificant, you could then reject your hypothesis.
Hypotheses Are Never Proven
In science you are never out to prove your hypothesis, merely to test it. It’s important to understand the difference. If you want to prove your hypothesis you automatically bias your study because you are trying to get to a specific answer. Your goal should be to see if the hypothesis is true or false because that way you’re open to your hypothesis being wrong. A hypothesis that turns out not to be true is still a valid answer and should not be embarrassing or upsetting to the scientist.
Ensuring Accuracy and Authenticity
Science has meaning when the research is conducted honestly. When a scientist is academically fraudulent, whether on purpose or by accident, it has real world consequences and decreases trust in the scientific community. An example of damage done by bad science is the perpetuation of the belief that vaccines cause autism. Despite the original paper being discredited multiple times, people still believe what they want to about autism and vaccines. The scientific method is meant to keep scientists honest and research reliable, and in general, it’s very good at it.
Hopefully this has given you a basic understanding of what’s involved in the scientific process. This is a very basic introduction, and I could go into much more detail, so if you have questions don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments. If you liked this, I may go into more detail about the types of hypotheses and experiment design in future posts. If you made it this far, thanks for sticking around to the end.
Kindness makes the world a better place so please be respectful with your comments. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve compiled a short list of sites that have some great resources for beginners.