The Scientific Method


The natural sciences are one of humankind's great achievements. In popular culture to hear that something is 'scientifically provení is almost the same thing as hearing that it is 'definitely true' and science has certainly achieved many wonderful and terrible, advances in recent history. In a search for reliable knowledge, science must rank high on any list. After all, we trust scientific beliefs with our lives every time we get in a car or aeroplane use a lift or eat processed foods. So what is it about the natural sciences that make them so special?


The Scientific Method

Observation, reason, and experiment make up what we call the scientific method. Thus the basic outline of the scientific method looks like this.



It is also very important that the observations, reasoning, and experiments can be repeated and checked independently by other observers. If you and your friends are the only ones to have seen or understood something, then it doesn't count as science. Your sighting of a UFO last year is not likely to be accepted by scientists. If the UFO had really been there, radar equipment would have picked it up, and it would have been reported. Your report has not received independent experimental confirmation where there should have been, so your claim is not scientific. That is not to say that it is definitely false, just that it is highly likely to be false.


Science also needs a little imagination

But science isnít just a method alone. It usually needs a little imagination to set it going. Imagine living at a time when everyone believed that the Earth was flat. This belief actually makes a lot of sense when you just look at the world, after all, with the exception of a few mountains and valleys it certainly looks flat and weíre certainly not sliding off it. So at this stage, thinking that the Earth was flat was in fact a reasonable scientific belief. Here we have the first indication that science and truth are not always the same thing.


However, in order for people to realise that the world was not flat some new experimental evidence, some imagination and a little bit of inspiration was needed. People went sailing and no edge to the Earth was ever found (this is the new experimental evidence). On the contrary, there were strange reports of sightings of similar land found by sailing east and sailing west (more new evidence). So someone used some inspired imagination and made a bold suggestion: suppose that the Earth is round.


Now what? We need to test this claim experimentally and happily some potentially suicidal adventurers were only to willing to oblige: sailing off round the world they found that you could in fact circumnavigate it and get all the way back to where you started. So the Earth, it seems, is round.


Proving it right or failing to prove it wrong?

However, this conclusion is premature. Just because you can sail round it that doesnít mean that the Earth is actually round it could be that the Earth isn't a sphere but an egg shape, and on the basis of theory and evidence so far discussed we can't be sure.


This is the essence of scientific truth: it can never be proven experimentally that a claim is correct. All we can ever do for certain is try to prove that itís wrong, i.e. by trying to sail around the world and falling off the edge. Itís important (and slightly strange at first) to realise that science doesnít attempt to prove things right; in a back-to-front kind of way it actually attempts to prove things wrong and hope that it fails. Knowing that we havenít been proved wrong yet is the closest thing that you can get to being right in science. This approach to science is called falsification, because you attempt to prove things false but hope you fail. The longer a theory has been around the more likely it is to be true Ö but you can never be sure that youíve actually got it right: the experiment that proves that theory wrong could be just around the corner.


The idea of falsification is an important one and in fact is used by some to determine whether an idea is scientific or not. If it canít be falsified, itís not science!


Remember that to say that a claim is not scientific does not mean that it is not important. As the physicist Richard Feynman says: ĎIf a thing is not a science, it is not necessarily bad. For example, love is not a science.íSo, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that there is something wrong with it; it just means that it is not a science.


Nicholas Alchin - Theory of Knowledge pp 17- 19