Since the first people were capable of conscious thought, humanity has wondered about the world and why things happen the way they do. In the very least, we know that man has wondered about the natural world since the earliest written records. This wondering has produced many theories over time. Some of these early theories might still seem reasonable today, while others would be dismissed as ridiculous. Today, we use a more or less standardized set of steps, called the Scientific Method, to answer these questions and to verify or correct preexisting answers. Even with the Scientific Method, many questions have yet to be answered. The answers we do get might not always be reliable. The Scientific Method isn’t perfect, but it’s still the most reliable method of discerning truth from falsities we have so far.
Even in the earliest days of humanity, people must have observed things about the world around them and wondered. What is the big ball of light in the sky, and where does it go at night? What makes those sounds outside at night and why? Is this plant safe to eat? Will that animal hurt me? Our ancient predecessors were on the right track in making observations and questioning them, but how could they possibly come up with answers?
Trial and Error – Simple trial and error is probably the most basic form of experimentation, and there isn’t any known way of discovering new information that is more effective than experimentation. Whether intentionally or otherwise, early people likely made most of their discoveries through trial and error. For example, consider a hungry prehistoric man who encounters a new plant for the first time and eats it. Perhaps he wonders if the plant is safe and tasty, so he decides to eat it to find out. Maybe he’s so hungry, he eats it without thinking about the possible outcomes. The first reason is intentional experimentation and the second is unintentional, but the results are the same. The man will have a new experience and, assuming he survives it, will learn from it. If it is delicious and nothing bad happens, he will know that it is good to eat, as will anyone else he relates his story to. If, on the other hand, it tastes bad and/or he becomes ill, he’ll give it a wide berth and warn others off it as well.
Reasoning – Reasoning is simply thinking about something logically. While this word may summon images of the more famous Greek philosophers, reasoning is not limited to professional thinkers. Everyone reasons. When we reason, we take what we know, or what we think we know, and make connections logically. Let’s assume the prehistoric man had a pleasant experience with his new plant. The man ate the plant. It didn’t taste bad, he didn’t become ill, and his hunger abated. Logically, he could draw the conclusion that eating the plant was safe and healthy and that eating it again later would still be safe and healthy. Now imagine that the man didn’t eat the plant because it resembled another plant that he knew was not safe to eat. In lieu of experimentation, he used reasoning to conclude that the plant is likely dangerous. Reasoning alone is often less reliable than experimentation because it relies on the drawing of conclusions from assumptions. If he eats the plant, he will know whether it is safe or not, or he’ll die. If he reasons that it isn’t safe, he’ll never know. But he won’t die from it either. So long as he reasons on the side of caution, he’ll be safer.
Invention – As we progress through the ages and come to the modern Scientific Method, you’ll notice that experimentation and reasoning continue to evolve, and that invention is mostly ignored. This is because as civilizations and human thought advanced, answers that were simply made up without any logical or empirical evidence weren’t good enough. However, it is worth mentioning that, especially for early beliefs, people sometimes simply made up answers just to have them, regardless of how true they might be.
Philosophic Influence and Aristotle’s Method
Early Greek philosophers, like Plato, built on the preexisting methods of reasoning without first obtaining empirical data. They refined logic by formulating rules for logical discussion and thought and by defining both inductive and deductive reasoning. However, they believed that reason was the only tool suitable to answering philosophical questions. They believed that all knowledge could be obtained through pure reasoning without actually having to measure anything. They saw measuring as the domain of the artisans and craftsmen. While more reliable than the less refined reasoning of the past, the lack of empirical data still led to many beliefs that just didn’t stand up to experimentation and measurement.
Aristotle is considered by many to be the father of science. He believed that reasoning had to be supported by real world findings rather than abstract thought. He believed that by studying measurements and observations, both his own and those of others, he could use inductive reasoning to find an answer built upon the data. Aristotle developed a rudimentary set of steps that is very similar to today’s Scientific Method, and he applied it to nearly every aspect of life. For his studies on the natural world, he scrutinized over 500 species. For his treatise on politics, he studied the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states. Aristotle’s method can be easily summed up in these three steps:
- Study what others have written about the subject.
- Find the general consensus on the subject.
- Perform a systematic study of everything in any way related to the subject.
Islamic Influence and the First Explicit Scientific Method
The early years of Islam saw both the first explicitly stated scientific method and many improvements to that method and to experimentation and reasoning in general. Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham understood that controlled and systematic experimentation was the true path to discovering information built upon old knowledge. He built upon Aristotle’s idea and developed the first explicitly stated Scientific Method that later evolved into the method used today.
- State an explicit problem based upon observation and experimentation.
- Form a hypothesis, which is a proposed explanation based on available evidence, then test it through experimentation.
- Interpret the data and come to a conclusion, ideally by using mathematics.
- Publish the results.
Many other Islamic scholars built upon the work of Ibn al-Haytham. Two of the most important contributions were the earliest forms of the peer review process and the idea that since instrumental readings and human observations were fallible, experiments must be repeated over time in order to establish reliability.
European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution
After the golden age of Islamic knowledge faded away, the Renaissance philosophers and scientists of Europe picked up where their Greek and Islamic predecessors left off. Many scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians made contributions to the Scientific Method and to science in general. This period of scientific growth, which spanned the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is often referred to as the Scientific Revolution.
Sir Francis Bacon was one of the most influential of Europe’s contributors. He reiterated the importance of induction as a part of the Scientific Method. He believed that scientific discovery should proceed through a process of observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning to apply the findings to the universe as a whole. Bacon believed that conflicting theories could be eliminated through the analysis of experimental evidence, and that as we eliminate false theories, we come closer to the truth.
In 1660, the Royal Society was established as a panel of experts to advise and guide scientists and oversee the spreading of information. The panel ruled that experimental evidence always supersedes theoretical evidence, which is one of the basic principles of science today. They established a journal to aid in the process of overseeing the spread of information, which led to a practice of genuine peer review. The Scientific Revolution reached its peak with the work of Sir Isaac Newton, who, in addition to many contributions to both physics and mathematics, was the first to teach that the Scientific Method needed both induction and deduction.
Modern Scientific Method
As science, mathematics, and philosophy continued to branch out into more specialized fields, it became clear that no one set of instructions for the Scientific Method could work for all and still be specific enough to be of any value. Today, there are about as many exact wordings for the Scientific Method as there are scientists to use it. However, most, if not all, follow the same basic steps in some way.
- Observe something about the universe, whether by direct observation or by studying the work of others.
- Ask interesting questions.
- Propose a hypothesis, or tentative description or answer that is consistent with what you have observed.
- Using the hypothesis, make predictions.
- Test the predictions and hypothesis through experimentation and/or further observations.
- Analyze the newly discovered data and confirm, reject, or modify your hypothesis.
- Repeat these steps until there are no discrepancies between the hypothesis and the results of experimentation and observation.
New experiments, observations, and studies add to the total body of available data. The continued improvement of existing tools and methods, as well as the invention and discovery of new ones, enable scientists to uncover more information than was available before. As the total body of knowledge grows, hypotheses must be retested, and the established theories will either be confirmed, rejected, or, as is usually the case, built upon. It is important to remember that continued experimentation is required to establish and maintain reliability, which means that the Scientific Method is a cycle rather than a linear list of steps.
Man has always wondered about the world around him, and the answer “I don’t know” has never been good enough. There are three basic methods of arriving at an answer for any question: experimentation, reasoning, and just making stuff up, thought the process is usually most likely to be a combination of the first two.
While just making stuff up grew less credible and accepted as civilization and intellectual thought developed and advanced through the ages, both experimentation and reasoning evolved into more advanced and reliable methods. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was the first to really combine experimentation and reasoning formally as a method for answering important questions more reliably. The first explicitly stated Scientific Method was introduced by the Islamic philosopher Ibn al-Haytham.
Over several centuries, Greek, Islamic, and European philosophers expanded on these basic principles of science. Some of the most influential contributions were the peer review process, the importance of both inductive and deductive reasoning, and the idea that ongoing experimentation was necessary to offset potential human and mechanical error.
The Scientific Method today is still a somewhat fluid concept. As the needs of the experimenter might differ from field to field, or even from experiment to experiment, the exact steps that need to be taken can be adapted. However, while the exact wording might vary, the general process of the modern Scientific Method remains the same.
- Observe something.
- Ask a question.
- Form a hypothesis.
- Make predictions.
- Test the predictions and hypothesis.
- Analyze data to confirm, reject, or modify the hypothesis.
- Repeat continually to establish and maintain reliability.