The Scientific Method

The concepts of data being consistent with a hypothesis


May 2014

1. Introduction: The Scientific Method
The use of empirical data as a requirement to test hypotheses is an essential part of any scientific
investigation. One must always consider the most satisfactory approach to a scientific problem.
Generally the scientific method involves the following steps:
1) The observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
2) The formulation of a hypothesis to explain these phenomena.
3) Using the hypothesis to predict other phenomena or quantitatively predict the results of new
4) Perform experimental tests, or observe the natural phenomena, and evaluate the predictions
made by the hypothesis. To this end, you can reject or, to an extent, accept the hypothesis.

2. Testing a Hypothesis
Part 4 of the method can lead to the confirmation or ruling out of a hypothesis. General scientific
logic reasons that a hypothesis can be ruled out if the predictions are clearly and repeatedly
incompatible with experimental or natural observations. No matter the elegance of a theory, its
predictions must agree with natural observations if we are to ‘believe’ that it is a valid description
of the environment. For example, this condition has to be treated with a ‘healthy caution’ when
utilizing numerical models. When combined with natural observations, numerical modeling can
provide an important insight into the limitations of an environmental system, and highlight possible
hypotheses within mathematical plausibility. However, without comparison to real observations, the
predictions of a numerical model can by no means be validated. Further care has to be taken when
considering that natural systems are never fully closed, such that model results are always non-
unique. Thus, complete confirmation is logically precluded by the fallacy of affirming the
consequent and by incomplete access to natural phenomena, and since models can only be
evaluated in relative terms, their use as a predictive method is always open to question. The primary
value of numerical models is therefore only heuristic. The use of models to confirm hypotheses is a
common mistake in the application of scientific methods.

3. Common Mistakes in Applying the Scientific Method
The scientific approach aims to reduce, ideally to eradicate, the influence of a scientists’ bias on the
experimental or observational outcome. One common mistake is that a scientist may have a
preference for one outcome or another. As highlighted above, another common mistake is to
attempt to explain a phenomenon, perhaps by numerical modeling, without performing
experimental tests. A further mistake is to rule out, or to ignore, data that do not support the original
hypothesis. Ideally a scientist should be open to the possibility that a hypothesis is ‘correct’ or
‘incorrect’. These arguments are grounded in the roots of scientific philosophy, and in this sense,
perhaps science reflects certain aspects of human frailty. For example, once a ‘status quo’ has been
reached regarding a scientific theory, or indeed in any aspect of society, it is difficult to change
opinion regardless of evidence that suggests otherwise. These conditions can be seen among many
scientific debates in the modern day.

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