THE PROCESS

It may come as a surprise to the few people who read this blog that this isn’t a pretentious, horribly written short story about a robot who is trying to become a human. This is, in fact, an article about the Scientific Method. Now that will come as a real shocker to some people who know that I’m not the most logical of thinkers (Mental Image: Shift, the ape from The Last Battle, saying “As if anyone could call what goes on in your head thinking.”) To them, I offer the following justification:

If STR is allowed to ask for 20 million INR to ‘act’ in a movie, I’m perfectly entitled to write this article.

By now, you will have (accurately) judged that the entire purpose of the first paragraph was to allow me to type the previous sentence without losing context (I know, it isn’t even funny, is it?).

Having said that, this article is, indeed, about the Scientific Method. However, I do not claim that everything I say is absolutely right. There may be intricacies that I’ve failed to grasp, subtleties my mind cannot comprehend. (Yes, I know that both clauses in the previous sentence mean the same thing, it’s habit that comes of being a student in Anna University). If you think I’ve made a mistake somewhere, feel free to tell me about it in the ‘Comments’ section. If your feelings for this article are too strong for non-swear words to express, please click on the ‘WHO AM I?’ link for instructions on how to express them to me more effectively.

Before I get to the subject proper, allow me to express my gratitude to one of my current teachers whose enthusiasm for ‘doing things the proper way’ inspired this article.

I would be taking part in the propagation of a cliché if I were to start by saying that the scientific method is the cornerstone of science. Being a cliché, however, does not make it false. The scientific method is indeed the cornerstone of science. It is a way of looking at the things around us and trying to find out why they are the way they are, a very effective one, I might add.  The scientific method isn’t something that most high school (or undergraduate) science syllabi focus on. What we see in our textbooks are essentially the results of this amazing way of thought. That is not to say that the results aren’t beautiful, in themselves. I just feel that the process should be given consideration as well. Didn’t someone say that these days, students of science are only taught what to think, not how to think?

STEP 1: FORMULATION OF A QUESTION

So, how do we start explaining our world? By observing it.

We observe the things around us, and ask questions about them. These questions are usually quite general like ‘Why does water become ice when it is cooled?’ or ‘Why are leaves green?’ as opposed to ‘How much time will a stone weighing 750 grams take to reach the ground when dropped from a 20 foot high cliff if the wind is blowing towards east at 20 kilometres per hour’. Specific questions like the latter are usually asked when experimentally testing a hypothesis (more on that later), or using a scientific theory to solve a real-world problem.

STEP 2: CREATION OF A HYPOTHESIS

Now, that we’ve got a question, we have to take a preliminary guess at the answer based on the things that we know about the phenomenon we’re looking at. This preliminary guess is called a hypothesis. They are usually made based on properties of the system under study that are immediately obvious, or previous scientific studies conducted on the system.

Suppose I’m trying to find out why the level of milk in a container appears to be higher around the edges than in the middle. I first check whether this happens only with milk, and, while doing so, I find out that with ‘thicker’ liquids such as oil, this difference in level isn’t as prominent as it is with milk. So I know that the difference in level depends on the thickness (viscosity) of the liquid. I also find that the difference in level increases if I use a thinner container. So, I try to connect the aforementioned findings to form a hypothesis, which may be simple or detailed.

Creating a hypothesis is usually the hardest part of the scientific process; it requires observational skills and a little imagination (for those systems that we can’t see but want to know about).

STEP 3: LOGICAL EXTENSION OF THE HYPOTHESIS

Some hypotheses are immediately testable, for example: ‘Stones fall faster than papers because they are heavier’. Others aren’t so lucky. For those others, their implications have to be worked out logically and these implications must be tested.

This usually involves an exercise in deductive reasoning, at the start of which you have to assume that your hypothesis is correct at the end of which you must be able to establish (possibly through, but not limited to mathematical arguments) that B happens if and only if A is true, where A is the hypothesis.

STEP 4: EXPERIMENTAL TESTING OF HYPOTHESIS

Now that we’ve established that B is a logical implication of A, we check whether B happens, imposing upon the experiment whatever constraints are necessary, and work backwards based on the result. There are two obvious possibilities here:

  1. B does not happen, therefore A is not true. Go back and modify your hypothesis.
  2. B happens, therefore A is true. Check whether you performed the experiment right. If you did, celebrate.

Seldom is the result of an experiment what we expect it to be. This usually isn’t because there’s something wrong with the experiment. A PERFECTLY CONDUCTED EXPERIMENT IS NEVER WRONG. It is usually the hypothesis that is wrong. Perhaps we overlooked some property of the system, or perhaps there was a flaw in our arguments.

Also, there might be some experimental results which are in agreement with the hypothesis, and some which don’t. We humans have a tendency to dismiss results which do not agree with our hypotheses. This is called the confirmation bias. A good scientist must avoid the confirmation bias. If he comes upon data that does not support his hypothesis, he must attempt to explain it based on his hypothesis. If he can’t, he must keep in mind that his hypothesis was, after all, an educated guess, and modify it to explain these deviant results. He must then test his modified hypothesis.

After all this, if he’s got an explanation that can not only account for the properties of the system he was observing, but can also successfully predict the behavior of that system under certain conditions, he can congratulate himself. He’s got a scientific theory.

STEP 5: PEER REVIEW AND DUPLICATION OF EXPERIMENTAL RESULTS

This is the part where other scientists check if your arguments are valid, and repeat your experiment to see if they get the same results as you got.

The purpose of this process is to iron out any mistakes or biases that may be present in your theory, the logic behind this being that it is likely for one human to make a mistake, but it isn’t likely for other humans to make the same mistake.

This last step is what makes the scientific method so foolproof.

There’s a catch, however, and this is what makes the scientific method so beautiful. Even after all this, it isn’t possible to prove a scientific theory right. One can only gather evidence in support of the theory, or against it. And all one needs to render a theory incomplete is one valid phenomenon where it does not work, even if there are thousands of others where it does work.

Some might argue that the scientific method isn’t as foolproof as I think it is, since there are many theories that have been proved to be incomplete. To them, this is my reply:

Humans are flawed. The method isn’t.

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