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The Scientific Method

Blas Pedro Uberuaga

Science and Humanity

September 12, 1993

The Scientific Method

In this world, especially in the industrialized countries such as the United States, we depend on the fruits of scientific endeavor for our very way of life. Without the products of scientific research, our lives would be drastically different. We would have no television, no telephone, no car, nothing that makes our lives what they are. We not only depend on the past achievements of science to make our lives what they are today, but we also expect science to continue to give us new products that will make tomorrow as radically different from today as today is from yesterday. One thousand years ago, this reliance on science and the change it brings was unthinkable. People barely looked past the next day and, when they did, they expected it to be the same as yesterday. They had no concept of scientific investigation. Everything that they knew had been known since the time of the Romans. It was the development of the scientific method that changed all of this. Armed with the scientific method, people began to investigate the world around them. They began to ask questions, to try to understand what really was going on in the world around them. These questions had an enormous impact on society and eventually led to what we call the western world.

The scientific method, as we know it, was first employed during the beginning of the fourteenth century by a German Dominican of the name of Theodoric of Freiburg. He was trying to determine the cause of rainbows. He had a hypothesis, an idea of what the cause might be, and, using a crystal, some water, and a piece of parchment, he experimented with his hypothesis. In so doing, he was able to determine the cause of the rainbow. He discovered that rainbows are caused by the refraction of light in water droplets in the air. This was the first true scientific experiment. This method of investigation would change the face of Western Civilization completely.

The scientific method arose from events that occurred about three hundred years before Theodoric. During the end of the eleventh century, the Europeans discovered the vast knowledge that had been collected by the Moors in southern Spain. The libraries of the Arabs contained knowledge from the time of the Greeks and Romans, as well as discoveries that they themselves had made. The Europeans learned of Aristotelian logic, geometry, algebra, astronomy, and many other subjects. The most important thing they learned from the Arabic libraries was that the natural world could be studied and that general principles, now referred to as laws, could be deduced that described the way nature behaved.

Today, the scientific method exists, in principle, in more or less the same form as what Theodoric used to investigate the rainbow. When a modern scientist wishes to carry out an experiment, however, his course of action is more defined. There are certain steps he or she must follow. First, he or she must have an idea about the physical system he or she wants to examine. After a scientist formulates a hypothesis, he or she sets up an experiment to test that hypothesis. He or she conducts many experiments that are designed to show the validity of the hypothesis. If the experiments support the hypothesis, the scientist will then try to theorize about the actual mechanism that causes the phenomenon; he or she will give a physical explanation for it. If the experiments do not support the hypothesis, the scientist must throw that hypothesis out and start again.

In Theodoric's case, he had the hypothesis that the rainbow might be caused by the interaction of light and water. He conducted some experiments using his crystal and some water, and showed that this was true. What's more, he also showed the actual mechanism that is responsible for the creation of the rainbow: the light is refracted by droplets which are at different positions in space. Different colors are refracted at different angles, and that is what causes the separation of color in a rainbow. So, he had a hypothesis, he tested it, and he was then able to come up with a physical explanation of the phenomenon he was studying.

After a theory is devised, it will be applied to other systems where it has relevance and tested further. If it holds up in all cases, it will be accepted. If not, then it must either be modified or discarded all together.

As another example of the scientific method in action, take the Michelson-Morley experiment. These two scientists hypothesized that, since all known waves at the time were known to need a medium to propagate through and that light was a wave (or so they thought), that there must exist some medium for light to propagate through. Thus, they, and others, hypothesized the existence of the ether, a substance that was thought to permeate all of space and through which light traveled. They devised an experiment to detect this ether. Their experiments turned out to be negative, and eventually led to the rejection of the ether hypothesis. Now, it is "known" that light does not need a medium for propagation and that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but a strange synthesis of the two.

It is not always necessary to start the process of scientific investigation with a hypothesis. There are times when a scientist will just observe a system, devising experiments to observe certain characteristics of the system, and then theorize about what he or she has seen. In this way, one does not have to start an investigation with preconceived notions, although to some extent, preconceptions will enter through the experiments. To observe something, a scientist has to setup an experiment to observe those properties of the system under examination that he or she feels are worth studying. Therefore, a scientist makes assumptions about the object of study in all cases. It is impossible to be completely objective. (This question of objectiveness has even more startling ramifications in quantum mechanical systems.)

I disagree somewhat with Burke when he says that scientists discard data that disagrees with the original hypothesis. Data cannot be discarded, unless there is a genuine reason for believing it is bad. For example, when Dr. R. Howell and I studied the occultation of Io by Jupiter, we observed an area on our reflected light curve that suggested that more light was being given off by Io as it was covered by Jupiter. Now, there is no physical explanation for this. There are no natural features that could exist on Io that could explain such a phenomenon, so we ignored that part of our light curve, attributing it to noise.

In general, though, I do not think this happens. If data is obtained that seems strange or is inexplicable (with current theories), I would like to believe that a scientist would repeat the experiment several times and determine whether that data was due to some error in the experimentation process or was real. I mean, we cannot accept all strange data as evidence of a previously unknown or misunderstood phenomenon because there are too many factors that enter the average experiment that could easily mess up the results. There is always going to be some level of noise, uncertainty in measurements, or unaccounted for factors that might enter the data and throw it off. Most of this is random in nature, so several repetitions of an experiment should sort most of this kind of thing out of the data.

If unexplained data was simply discarded, I do not think that we would have made the progress in science that we have. For example, if all unexplained or nonsensical data obtained in quantum experiments were thrown out, we would have very little to work with because most of quantum mechanics is counter-intuitive. The scientist must sort data that is the artifact of noise or bad measurements from that which truly reveals the existence of a previously unknown phenomenon. There will be times when one is confused with the other, but such occurrences are inevitable when one is working with something that one does not completely understand.

The development of a systematic way of studying the world has changed this planet more than any other idea. The employment of the scientific method has brought us means to communicate nearly instantaneously, circle the globe in a day, increase the yield of our fields, and map the genetic structure of humans. The products of science that seem common place and even boring to us would have been completely beyond the imaginations of people living five hundred years ago. The scientific method has given us a different view of the world, a view that nature is there to be examined and understood by humans. There is some danger in its use in that one can never be completely objective, but our lack of complete objectivity is what makes us human. Even with these built in imperfections, the scientific method has allowed us to make great advances in our development of a model of the universe. Our understanding of nature is evident in the countless ways we exploit it (whether this is good or bad, I cannot say). The development of the scientific method is indeed, as Burke says, one of the great turning points in the course of Western, and World, Civilization.

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These pages created by Blas Pedro Uberuaga.