What Makes Good Science?
It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? However, how can you tell if what you see, read or hear about Science or the world around you is correct? And, what should scientists do in revealing or explaining their work accurately?
Do you just accept the first thing you hear, or whoever shouts loudest? Where’s the evidence to back up the theory or fact? This blog entry hopes to set out some of the important steps Scientists – and indeed everyone else – must take in making sense of Science.
Let’s explain some terms first though that are often misused or misunderstood in their scientific use.
An “hypothesis” is a statement and explanation (not a question) that is based on observations or predictions about phenomena regarding their cause and effect in specific situations. For example, I might hypothesise that my car won’t start because I’ve not put any fuel in the tank.
The word “model” is used when a hypothesis is known to have at least some validity. From previous experience, I know that if you don’t put fuel into the car it doesn’t start! However, it could be that there is fuel in the car and it won’t start because of some other reason my hypothesis and model haven’t taken account of. Maybe it won’t start because the ignition has failed; perhaps it’s not even my car!
That’s why scientists must conduct repeatable experiments and constantly refine models on discovery of new evidence.
A scientific “theory” or “law” represents an hypothesis, or a group of related hypotheses, which has been confirmed through repeated experimental tests. Often, theories can be expressed in terms of a few concepts and equations, or identified as “laws of nature,” indicating their universal application. These scientific theories and laws represent what we know about how things work in our universe and provide the basis for exploring less well-understood areas of knowledge.
It’s hard to discard theories, although scientists (and others who might be less scrupulous and suggest “it’s just a theory”) do constantly assess the need for refinement. New scientific discoveries are first assumed to fit into the existing theoretical framework as that’s what is the most logical starting position.
It is only when, after repeated experimental tests, the new phenomenon cannot be accommodated that scientists seriously question the theory and attempt to modify it.
The Scientific Method
Scientists are sticklers for constantly observing the world around them, trying to explain what they see, testing out their hypotheses, analyzing the results and further modifying and repeating their experiments to prove their theories.
It goes round and round and round in this cycle, refining our understanding of the World around us. In fact, by its very nature, “The Scientific Method” ensures that scientists don’t rest on their laurels and are always looking to improve how well we understand what we observe.
The scientific method is a process scientists must follow in determining the workings of the universe. There are five basic components to the scientific method:
- From observations of the natural world, or by conducting research you start to question the nature of phenomenon that is interesting.
- Develop one or more hypotheses, or educated guesses, to explain this phenomenon. The hypotheses should be predictive – given a set of circumstances, the hypothesis should predict an outcome.
- Devise experiments to test the hypotheses. If it can’t be tested, it can’t be proven!
- Analyze the experimental results and determine to what degree do the results fit the predictions of the hypothesis.
- Further modify and repeat the experiments.
It is impossible to prove something to be absolutely true. The absolute truth is ever-elusive. You could create a theory with an overwhelming amount of support, but it takes just one valid piece of contrary evidence to strike it down. As such, science and scientific theories are always evolving as new ideas and technologies allow us to create and test hypotheses in new and exciting ways.
Good science and scientific methodology is also tested through peer to peer review and sharing the evidence with other scientists and the public. More and more experiments are devised to test the hypotheses and if it fails at all it’s back to the science lab!