TECH & SCIENCE
TAKE a look at your surroundings.
Chances are, your field of view is littered with the products of science.
From the buildings you see, the mode of transport you use, the clothes you’re wearing, the tools you use, the gadgets you enjoy, right down to the food and beverages you consume - science has played some pivotal role in their creation and refinement.
But what, exactly, is science? How do scientists conduct research and experiments?
There’s quite a lot of misinformation out there about the scientific method, and I hope to clear up a few of these misunderstandings.
The six steps of the scientific method
When conducting research, scientists use the scientific method to collect measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis (often in the form of an if/then statement), the results of which aim to support or contradict that hypothesis.
The six steps are outlined as follows:
1) Make an observation or observations.
2) Ask questions about the observations and gather information.
3) Form a hypothesis — a tentative description of what’s been observed, and make predictions based on that hypothesis.
4) Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment that can be reproduced.
5) Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary.
6) Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory.
If the experiment is reproduced continuously with no discrepancies or contradictions, the hypothesis (perhaps along with other related hypotheses), could go on to form the basis of a scientific theory.
Deduction and induction
People have two primary modes of reasoning, known as deductive and inductive reasoning, and scientists use both of these modes when conducting research.
Deductive reasoning uses information already available (premises) to infer a conclusion.
Take this syllogism as an example: Premise 1: All apples are fruit
Premise 2: A Granny Smith is an apple Conclusion: Therefore, a Granny Smith is a fruit.
This deductive form of reasoning is also how the sudoku puzzle on page four works, as well.
Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, goes beyond the information contained in what we already know, and extrapolates that knowledge into new areas.
We induce using generalisations and analogies.
Generalisations include observing regularities in nature and imagining they are uniform everywhere – this is, in part, how we create the so-called laws of nature.
Generalisations also create classes of things, such as “mammals” or “reptiles”.
Analogies make claims of similarities between two things, and draw conclusions based on these analogous traits.
For example, a paleontologist might find the fossilized remains of an extinct animal that has sharp teeth.
They observe that animals alive today with sharp teeth are carnivorous, and, using this analogy, they induce that the extinct animal was a carnivore.
Using induction and inference to arrive at the best possible explanation consistent with the evidence, science teaches us more about the world than we could simply deduce.
Which brings us to…
‘It’s just a theory, it hasn’t been proven’.
When someone invokes this phrase to cast doubt upon the validity of a body of scientific work, it’s often persuasive to those who don’t understand how scientific theories are formed.
To the layman, a theory might sound like a wild guess, based on little to no evidence, but this simply isn’t true.
In a nutshell, a ‘scientific theory’ is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world, based upon a body of facts that have been rigorously tested through reproducible experimentation.
It is the best available, cohesive explanation for that body of facts.
And while it’s true that scientific theories aren’t proven, here’s the real kicker - nothing in science is ever truly proven.
Not with 100 percent certainty. Additionally, while we all focus on the new discoveries of science, the biggest role scientists play in advancing our understanding of the world is to disprove hypotheses and theories, not prove them.
That’s the true genius of science.
◆ METHODS OF INQUIRY: Communicating science effectively requires more than facts, and an understanding the scientific method is vitally important for all of us - especially as governments and policy makers shape the direction of scientific research and...