The question "what is the scientific method?" is very much like the question "what is science?" It is somewhat problematic to answer and unfortunately, there simply are no cut and dry definitions that fit neatly into nice little boxes.
In fact it is a bit misleading to use the term "the scientific method" because this implies that there is only one single set method for scientific inquiry. There is no single method as such; rather, a collection of techniques that are used to guide a researcher such as yourself through a scientific investigation.
So what is the scientific method? It is the all inclusive set of procedures and processes that scientists have used, currently use or may use in future to pursue knowledge. Huh, whaa...? If that was your reaction, I don't blame you.
"What this is basically saying is that the scientific method can be any process or method that a scientist uses in order to carry out a scientific investigation and in so doing, acquire scientific knowledge. All whithin reason of course. Here's another useful and interesting take on "what is the scientific method?"
This "scientific process" of acquiring knowledge will usually call for you to make observations; develop hypotheses that explain those observations; test the hypotheses through well structured experiments and collect physical evidence or experimental data that you will use to draw conclusions on your hypothesis.
It is worthy to note that the various methods of scientific inquiry that we use today did not just appear at any one point in time. The scientific inquiry process that we have become accustomed to has been the result of continual development. The history of scientific method alone can be traced as far back as the year 2000 BC.
Indeed answering the question "what is the scientific method?" is no easy feat. Even philosophers have a difficult time answering this question and today you will find that opinions vary far and wide.
I am far from being a philosopher so my take on this tricky and slippery question will be limited from a philosophical point of view at the very best. Nevertheless, below you will find several definitions of scientific method that will hopefully help you form a well rounded and versatile understanding of the scientific process.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary answers the question "what is the scientific method?" by defining it as: "all principles and procedures that are used for the systematic pursuit of knowledge."
It goes on to say that these principles and procedures involve the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experimentation and last but not least, the testing of hypotheses.
Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) an American physicist who developed a number of important notions in the philosophy of science answers the question "what is the scientific method?" quite well. He defines it as:
"the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world"
Another great, albeit technical definition of scientific method comes from Lionel Nicholas' text Introduction to Psychology. In it, he offers his answer to "what is the scientific method?" stating that:
"the scientific method represents a systematic, continuous and self-repeating approach in collecting and understanding empirical data"
Furthermore Nicholas goes on to say that the scientific method is an empirical method. This is the process of collecting data upon which established theories or scientific conclusions can be based.
The Research and Education Association (REA) also offers a great definition of scientific method and answer to the question "what is the scientific method?" Its simple yet useful definition describes the scientific method as:
"a set of procedures that are used for the scientific investigation of a problem" It goes on to say that this procedure invovles: defining a problem, formulating a hypothesis, experimenting to test the hypothesis using a control group and an experimental group; observing and recording data; and drawing conclusions.
This is the last one, I promise... This definition of scientific method is drawn from S. Duma's Fundamentals of Nursing text and it also offers a very concise answer to "what is the scientific method?"
Duma defines the scientific method as a systematic way of solving problems. She adds that it involves observing, measuring and carefully recording data.
Duma's take on the process is as follows: prior knowledge and observations are used to make predictions as to how different factors might affect each other; the ideas gathered from the predictions are tested and the outcomes of those tests are evaluated; the observations made through the tests are then used in future to predict and control outcomes in similar cases.
Well as you can see from the above scientific method definitions there's really no straightforward answer to this question. The role it plays in science and scientific inquiry is perhaps best described in terms of the steps that are involved.
One thing can be agreed on though, and that is the scientific method is a tool that is used to find answers to questions and to refine our current view or understanding of the world around us.
Sir Peter B. Medawar (1915-1987) the British zoologist said it best regarding the scientific method:
"Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare..."
You now hopefully have a good understanding of the scientific as a tool that will help you carry out your own scientific investigations. So what steps are involved and how do you actually apply it? The resources below will show you how.
Gower, Barry. "New Methods for a New Science." Scientific Method: an Historical and Philosophical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Duma, Sinegugu. "Scientific Approach to Nursing." Fundamentals of Nursing: Fresh Perspectives. Pinelands, Cape Town: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.
Nicholas, Lionel. "Research Methods and Statistics: The Scientific Method" Introduction to Psychology. 2nd ed. Landsdowne: University of Cape Town, 2003. Print.
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