All of the information in this text has been gained by application of the scientific method. Although many different techniques are involved in the scientific method, all share three attributes: (1) confidence that the natural world, including ourselves, is ul timately explainable in terms we can understand; (2) descriptions and explanations of the natural world that are honestly based on observations and that could be modified or refuted by other observations; and (3) humility, or the willingness to accept the fact that we could be wrong. If further study should yield conclusions that refuted all or part of an idea, the idea would have to be modified accordingly. In short, the scientific method is based on a confidence in our rational ability, honesty, and humility. Practicing scientists may not always display these attributes, but the validity of the large body of scientific knowledge that has been accumulated—as shown by the technological applications and the predictive value of scientific hypotheses—are ample testimony to the fact that the scientific method works.
The scientific method involves specific steps. After making certain observations regarding the natural world, a hypothesis is formulated. In order for this hypothesis to be scientific, it must be capable of being refuted by experiments or other observations of the natural world. For example, one might hypothesize that people who exercise regularly have a lower resting pulse rate than other people. Experiments are conducted, or other observations are made, and the results are analyzed. Conclusions are then drawn as to whether the new data either refute or support the hypothesis. If the hypothesis survives such testing, it might be incorporated into a more general theory. Scientific theories are statements about the natural world that incorporate a number of proven hypotheses. They serve as a logical framework by which these hypotheses can be interrelated and provide the basis for predictions that may as yet be untested.
The hypothesis in the preceding example is scientific because it is testable; the pulse rates of 100 athletes and 100 sedentary people could be measured, for example, to see if there were statistically significant differences. If there were, the statement that athletes, on the average, have lower resting pulse rates than other people would be justified based on these data. One must still be open to the fact that this conclusion could be wrong. Before the discovery could become generally accepted as fact, other scientists would have to consistently replicate the results. Scientific theories are based on reproducible data.
It is quite possible that when others attempt to replicate the experiment their results will be slightly different. They may then construct scientific hypotheses that the differences in resting pulse rate also depend on other factors—for example, the nature of the exercise performed. When scientists attempt to test these hypotheses, they will likely encounter new problems, requiring new explanatory hypotheses, which then must be tested by additional experiments.
In this way, a large body of highly specialized information is gradually accumulated, and a more generalized explanation (a scientific theory) can be formulated. This explanation will almost always be different from preconceived notions. People who follow the scientific method will then appropriately modify their concepts, realizing that their new ideas will probably have to be changed again in the future as additional experiments are performed.
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