The scientific method is a process that helps answer questions based on observations, carefully planned experiments and deductive reasoning. All scientific inquiry begins with the identification of a problem or question to be answered based on observation. The steps of the scientific method then provide an organized way to design and conduct experiments and analyze and interpret the results.
Identifying the Problem
Scientific observations must be objective and capable of being repeated and verified by others. Typically, initial observations are based on a previous experiment or observation made by others. Scientific knowledge is cumulative in that previous research and results set the foundation for future ideas and experiments. Many scientific problems are identified by reviewing the work of others and determining what questions or topics can be investigated further.
Asking a Question
Observations and initial research can lead you to identify topics that you want to study. Your question should be specific, narrowing down the range of topics. Defining what you want to know, the purpose of your question and what you think the answer will ultimately tell you can help you ask a more concise question. The question must be answerable through experimentation with concrete, measurable outcomes.
Researching the Question
Research includes gathering background information and resources about your observations and question. Evaluating information that is already available can lead to better research questions and a well-planned experiment. Determining what materials are available to you is another important part of your initial research; you may need to revise your question to accommodate the available resources.
Creating Hypotheses and Predictions
A hypothesis is a general, tentative idea aligned with previous observations or research and testable through experimentation. It is possible to prove that a hypothesis is wrong, but a hypothesis can never be confirmed with absolute certainty, it is only supported. A prediction about the experimental outcome is made through the process of deductive reasoning, where a specific result is expected if the broad hypothesis is supported.
An experiment that is capable of testing the hypothesis must be designed carefully so that the results will clearly support or refute the hypothesis. Typical science experiments compare and contrast two groups which are treated identically except for one specific variable that is being tested while all other conditions are the same between the two groups. The experiment also must be repeated a number of times to ensure that the first set of results were not by random chance, coincidence or accident.
Collecting and Analyzing Data
All experimental data must be reviewed and analyzed to determine if the hypothesis is supported or refuted. Statistical analyses may need to be performed in order to determine whether or not the data is statistically significant, showing that the result can be attributed to a specific cause and not random chance. Analyzing data will lead a scientist to support or refute their hypothesis; if a hypothesis is disproven, then the original hypothesis can be revised and the steps of scientific inquiry can begin again.
When drawing a conclusion about the outcome of an experiment, it is critical to determine whether or not the experimental or data collection methods may be responsible for any results that appear to be very different in the same series of experiments. The conclusions that are drawn should answer the original research question, but often more questions arise when interpreting data, leading to new questions, hypotheses and experiments.
Scientific research moves forward when data and information are shared with the scientific community and the general public. Scientific information is disseminated through journal articles and conferences, allowing other scientists to verify the outcomes and use the new information to generate their own questions and hypotheses.
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