Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Mothership Question #3

Every week, Seed asks us a question, Ask a ScienceBlogger, and they will link to our responses in a “blog carnival” on the following Wednesday. Our responses are limited to 300 words or less.

Question: If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?

I am not too keen to shake anyone, but I do think a lot of problems could be solved if the public understood what the scientific method is.

Basically, scientists use the scientific method to construct a reality-based representation of the universe that is not clouded with wishful thinking. The scientific method is a specific methodology used to explore the world and to acquire new knowledge about the world through posing and answering logical questions about the causal relationships between natural phenomena. Additionally, our understanding of the universe is refined and improved with every technological advance because these advances provide us with more tools for testing hypotheses.

As everyone knows, scientists do experiments. But often, it seems that the public doesn’t understand what an experiment is, how it is designed, or what its specific purpose is. Basically, a scientific experiment is designed to test only one condition or aspect of a phenomenon. Thus, it is the best way to distinguish predictable outcomes to natural phenomenon from lies and delusions. So the scientist designs her experiment such that only one parameter is changed so resulting impacts can be identified as occurring as a direct result of the experimental change. These resulting impacts must occur in a consistent and predictable way.

The Scientific Method follows several steps;

  1. Observe and describe a phenomenon or several related phenomena. What are your observations? Do you consistently observe the same outcome to the same event? What have others reported about this particular phenomenon and how did they test and explain their results?
  2. Formulate your hypothesis. A hypothesis often tests a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Your hypothesis is your prediction of possible outcomes to a specific event or condition based on your observations and the experimental results of others, and includes the most likely (simplest) interpretations of those possible outcomes.
  3. Test your hypothesis. Design specific experimental methodologies to test your hypothesis such that there are only two possible outcomes; true or false. This involves testing only one parameter and documenting (measuring, etc.) the impact that results from changing that one parameter. Scientists usually repeat their experiments, and each “repeat” is referred to as a “trial” or a “run”.
  4. Analyze your data. Determine the validity of your data. This often involves the use of mathematics in the form of statistics.
  5. Formulate your conclusion. Did the experiments address your hypothesis or should you redesign the experiment? How did you interpret the data? Did the data confirm or rule out your hypothesis? If the data ruled out your hypothesis, what is your new hypothesis that is consistent with these data? Should this hypothesis be tested further and, if so, how?
  6. Report your findings. Present your findings in a meeting with your colleagues. Write a paper describing your hypothesis and predicted outcome(s), your testing methodologies, the resulting data, your interpretation of those data and then submit that paper to a journal for peer-review. Write a grant requesting funds to pursue this research further. Talk to the press about your research and hope they don’t screw it all up in their article.


  1. #1 cm
    May 19, 2006

    What do you make of this article, which takes issue with the use of the phrase “the scientific method” in the way you’re using it?

  2. #2 GrrlScientist
    May 20, 2006

    my first response to that article is that the author CLEARLY has no understanding of the meaning for the words “theory” and “hypothesis”. i am shocked that no one has responded to that essay before, but i will be formulating a longer, more detailed response that will appear in a day or two (hopefully, i am preoccupied with several other pieces, as well as a research paper).

  3. #3 Leah
    May 20, 2006

    This is an article I once wrote for Tangled Bank about scientific versus colloquial use of the word theory. Hopefully, it might be helpful to you :-) I agree that teaching the scientific method might help with a lot of the public perception problems. I also wish I could smack the media (and some scientists even) to make them realize that scienctists don’t “prove” things.

  4. #4 Alane
    May 21, 2006

    “…testing hypotheses derived from theories in order to test those theories.” Where the heck did the author get that one? I agree that real science doesn’t always tidily follow the “scientific method” as laid out in textbooks, but…what?

    Understanding the scientific method (and that science is not about “proving” things) is also what I’d like from the public.