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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Who invented the scientific method?

Category: Society      Published: November 20, 2012

myth of the scientific method
The existence of one, golden-standard scientific method is a myth. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

There is not one scientific method. The existence of one, golden-standard scientific method is a myth perpetuated by elementary school textbooks in an effort to make science accessible to young students. This myth is chronicled in the book "Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method" by Henry H. Bauer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as any method that "has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses." If science is the discovery of natural truth, there are many methods that scientists use to accomplish this. There are perhaps four methods that scientists use most often: observation, tool development, hypothesis testing, and model building.

Observation means simply measuring a phenomenon in nature, transforming it into a format that humans can observe, recording the result and communicating it to others. In observation-based science, there is rarely a need for forming a hypothesis or testing it. Paleontology, astronomy, and field biology are largely observational sciences. Measuring the reactivity of an acid, determining the life time of bees, or capturing an image of an atom are all observational approaches.

In the scientific method of tool development, the goal is to improve the power of a measurement device for future observations. This activity may seem like the job for engineers and not scientists. However, if the device is on the cutting edge of technology, tool development requires a scientist to make sense of the new science encountered on the way. Devices such as telescopes, atom smashers, and electron microscopes are on the forefront of science and require trekking into unexplored scientific territory in order to be improved. The very activity of improving the performance of a measurement tool is itself a scientific method.

The next method – hypothesis testing – is the one that usually ends up in elementary school books. In this method, the scientist makes a prediction about what a certain test will reveal and then performs the test. In this method, there is typically a test group and a control group and there is only one variable being changed between the two groups. The method of hypothesis testing is useful in isolating the effect of one physical agent when many agents are at work. Hypothesis testing is used to efficiently link cause and effect.

The last major scientific method – model building – is more the realm of the theorist than of the experimentalist. In model building, the scientist takes a large quantity of data from  observation and attempts to build a model that fits all the data and successfully predicts future observations. Model building can be as simple as the statement "zebras sleep more than ten hours a day" or as complex as a program running on a hundred computers, implementing hundreds of equations in order to recreate the evolution of the universe. Models come in the form of statements, equations, and computational algorithms. Models that are repeatedly accurate across a wide range of areas are elevated to the status of "theory". There are other methods besides these four that would count as science. The "scientific method" is therefore anything a scientist does to reveal new truth, as long as his methods don't violate basic logic and are repeatable by independent parties.

Topics: hypothesis, scientific method, theory