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Scientific Method

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Scientific Method

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Scientific Method

Yaqi Wan, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


 

ABSTRACT

Scientific method refers to the “principles and empirical processes of discovery and demonstration considered characteristic of scientific investigation” (Scientific Method, 2012). It can consciously or unconsciously help reinforce humans’ understanding of the world by engaging them in an endless dialogue with Nature. It plays an essential role in the evolution and revolution of human civilization. This article aims to explore the definition of scientific method, which is then followed by the discussion of its two components, empiricism and scientific theory, and the cross-dimensional relationship between these two terms. Application of scientific method both in history and daily life will be illustrated in the later section. It is believed that scientific method, being an extension of common sense, can be used as an effective and efficient way for humans to better understand the world.

Keywords: Empiricism, hypothesis, scientific method, scientific theory


 

Scientific method, as a way of thinking and knowing, is sometimes “considered as an extension of common sense” (Babson, 2012a). It has a wide and profound influence on human civilization, which can be seen and applied in the various areas, such as pure science, applied science and human society. This essay aims to identify the definition of ‘scientific method’ and its components before explaining the application in scientific research as well as in daily life. Some examples will be given to indicate the application of scientific method in the real world.

Scientific method is “the principles and empirical processes of discovery and demonstration considered characteristic of or necessary for scientific investigation, generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to demonstrate the truth or falseness of the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis” (Scientific Method, 2012). To be more specific, the scientific method consists of two parts: The first is empiricism and the other is scientific theory. Neither empiricism nor the scientific theory is dispensable. They play an important role in both people’s daily life and scientific research.

As defined in the American Heritage Dictionary, “empiricism is the view that experience, especially of the sense, is the only source of knowledge” (Empiricism, 2012). It can also be the employment of empirical method or empirical conclusions. There are two points that can be inferred from the definition. First, empiricism is knowledge gained through practical experience. Second, empiricism can be subjective because experience is the only source of knowledge in the view of empiricism.

The process of empiricism is firstly to make observations, either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative observation does not involve numbers while quantitative observation is considered as a kind of measurement and does involve a number. Next comes the formulating of a hypothesis, which can also be called educated guess, to give a possible explanation for the observations. After that, experiments are performed to test the hypothesis by trying to disprove it. During the experiments, new observations could be captured, thus people could modify the original hypothesis or formulate a new one. Law, the summary of fact, can be derived from empiricism after going through several cycles of this process.

In the lecture given by Dr. John Babson (2012a), it is illustrated that when an experiment is performed, some rules need to be followed. The overwhelming rule in performing an experiment is that only one variable can be changed at a time. Failure to do so could confuse any cause-and-effect relationship that experiment performers are trying to tease out. Meaningful results cannot be obtained from carefully designed experiments without following this complex rule. It is also a major hint that one does not have an effective handle on all of the significant variables involved. In addition, a very effective and efficient approach to seeking an empirical relationship among the data of variables is to find a simple mathematical transformation of both X and Y axes and use mathematical equations or formulas to represent the relationship. In this way, complex relationship can be expressed in a more intuitional way.

Another part of scientific method is theory. Theory is “systematically organized knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena” (Theory, 2012). It may be speculation or belief that guides actions or assists comprehension. The emphasis of theory is to model reality based upon a few highly integrated and fundamental principles. The rule of making a theory is to take a simple idea seriously where the key ingredient of “seriously” is to follow the pathway of logical consequences. A good theory does not only make predictions about physical phenomena but also connects up seemingly unrelated phenomena.

The process of scientific investigation is to make a prediction of a phenomenon according to a theory first. Then, experiments are conducted to test whether the prediction is correct or not. If any discrepancy between the theory and the experiment result is found, the theory should be modified as needed. Dimensional analysis is always used when constructing or modifying a scientific theory. This is a way to use mathematical relationship to express real physical conditions and both sides of the equation must be the same in dimension.

Both empiricism and scientific theory, being formed on the basis of common sense and facts, belong to the notion of scientific method. The dialog of empiricism and scientific method is the fundamental basis of scientific method (Babson, 2012b). However, purely empirical studies can only summarize facts from observations in the form of empirical laws while theoretical studies not only give a profound and deep explanation for the phenomena but connect up unrelated facts and make predictions of unobserved phenomena.

Scientific method consists of empiricism and theory. According to Dr. Babson’s lecture (2012b), scientific method is an endless dialogue asking questions of Nature. People use scientific method to reinforce their understanding of the world and themselves, promoting the development of human civilization. In ancient times, people improved production technology with long-term knowledge and experience accumulation. Obviously, this process involves empiricism. When people’s observations and experiences have accumulated to a certain level, they would hypothesize the way to produce articles efficiently. After testing their hypothesis again and again, they could summarize the facts of efficient ways of production and apply them into practice, which successfully increase the productivity. Furthermore, some laws were underlain as theories. Gradually, more facts were found and more theories were established and modified, contributing to many great breakthroughs in science and technology.

As a matter of fact, there is no absolute truth in science. The closest people could obtain are facts. In the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton formed the Law of Universal Gravitation. He could use this law to predict the behavior of a dropped object. Other scientists followed Newton’s law and made several big breakthroughs in astronomy. For example, the discovery of Halley’s Comet, Neptune, Pluto and many other stars were based on Newton’s law. Even in the twenty-first century, more stars are being found by applying this law. Although Sir Isaac Newton could not explain why the law happened, his law is considered to be adequately tested in the area of macrophysics as shown above and improved by many other scientists from time to time. Therefore, a law can sometimes be used as a scientific theory under certain conditions.

Theories are also widely applied in different aspects of human society, such as economics, education, humanities, linguistics, literature, music, sociology, and statistics. For example, Educational Theory includes the obverse of practice, making a generalizing or explanatory model (e.g., a specific learning theory like constructivism) and finally forming a body of knowledge, which may or may not be associated with particular explanatory models (Askew, 2012). To theorize is to develop these bodies of knowledge. If learners follow the process mentioned above, they can gain a good grasp of knowledge from curriculum together with critical and creative thinking, which cannot be simply attained from books.

In our daily life, empiricism is more frequently used than scientific theory, whereas in scientific research, theories, relatively more precise and accurate, are more suitable to apply to scientific research. Even from birth, people have naturally employed the scientific method. For instance, when children are in kindergarten, they may start to wonder why people need to water the flowers after observing gardeners doing so. It is possible that one day they could come up with the idea that maybe flowers, like other lives, would die without water. They may ask their teachers a similar question and also express their thought about this. Then the teachers may encourage them to test their hypothesis on their own. To prove their hypothesis, they may simultaneously water several pots and not water several others at home for a few weeks. The withering of the flowers in the pots without watering will prove the hypothesis to be correct.

When it comes to our studies, there is always a disturbing problem for English learners that we would forget the English words that we have recently learnt. Then some of us might make the observation that we can remember and learn more during the morning reading time. Thus, we hypothesize that the study efficiency of memorizing English words is higher if we do that in the early time of the morning. The comparison of memorizing results of morning study and evening study by vocabulary tests show that our hypothesis is right to a great extent. This also indicates the reason why there is compulsory morning reading session for students.

The scientific method is always used by scientists to verify their hypotheses and draw conclusions, which greatly promotes the development of science and technology. As a popular saying goes, science and technology constitute the primary productive force. The development of science and technology has greatly increased the standard of the production and life of human beings. Through scientific method, people can attain the most indisputable facts and observations, which is the closest distance that people can reach from the “absolute truth”. People, therefore, become more experienced and knowledgeable in exploring and unraveling the secrets of the world, potentially increasing the effectiveness of how they understand and apply resources.

The scientific method is sometimes referred to as an extension of common sense, indicating that it is not far away from us. It is a process used not only by scientists but also people in communities in order to come up with accurate and reliable answers to problems. Ordinary people use it wittingly or unwittingly to solve problems in their daily existence as well as other various aspects of society. Although we might not be scientists, we can think and got to know things more deeply through scientific method. Applying scientific method to our daily life is a good way to build up critical and systematic thinking, which helps us understand the world and ourselves better.

 

REFERENCES

Askew, J. (2012). Educational theory. Retrieved from http://crescentok.com/staff/jaskew/isr/education/theories.htm

Babson, J. F. (2012a). Ecological perspective: The challenge of our time lecture? The scientific method part I: Empiricism.

Babson, J. F. (2012b). Ecological perspective: The challenge of our time lecture? The scientific method part II: Theory and default position.

Empiricism. (2012). In The American Heritage Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=empiricism

Scientific Method. (2012). In The American Heritage Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=scientific+method

Theory. (2012). In The American Heritage Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=Theory

ASSIGNMENT SUMMARY

This article is a course assignment aiming to provoke students’ in-depth thinking of the scientific method as a way of thinking and knowing. It is also expected that students could reflect on the implication as well as application of scientific method in our times.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yaqi Wan is an undergraduate of Accountancy at The School of Accounting and Finance, Faculty of Business, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In addition to her studies in Business, she also takes a broad range of subjects. She is currently studying in Copenhagen Business School as part of an exchange programme.

 

  1. I wonder what some of the “words” are that Wan mentions in her discussion of rote language acquisition (which ones do students learn or forget during their morning lessons)? I might suggest that the author consider research which investigates the foundations of second language learning, the ecology of language learning, and time-scaling in language learning. Some possible references include

    Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Gardner, R. C., Day, J. B., & Maclntyre, P. D. (1992). Integrative motivation, induced anxiety, and language learning in a controlled environment. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 14(02), 197-214.

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