What, exactly, is science? It's something people in lab coats do, right? Science has been a potent tool, providing us with technology we once never dreamt possible. It has also helped us answer questions that have sat dormant in the human psyche for millennia.
The history of science, however, is filled with revolutions or modifications of accepted theory. Newton described gravity as an immutable background entity, an ever-present force that permeated the cosmos.
That was until Einstein came along with general relativity and described how gravity emerged out of the interaction between mass and the fabric of spacetime. Scientists are constantly seeking a deeper explanation of reality, and so scientists have to be ready for a better theory or model to come along and replace it.
The journey with which scientific discovery and change occurs has been distilled into what is referred to as the scientific method.
What Is the Scientific Method?
The scientific method is a systematic approach used by scientists to investigate and understand natural phenomena. It consists of a series of steps that guide researchers in drawing conclusions from hypotheses.
"Science never achieves final truth in theories, but one theory can be objectively truer than another, even if we never know that for sure," says British physicist David Deutsch from the University of Oxford. Deutsch is the author of The Beginning of Infinity, a book that argues science will never reach a point in which it can describe the entirety of phenomena in the physical world, as new theories will bring along with them deeper problems in need of explanation.
What Are the Steps of the Scientific Method?
The steps of the scientific method hold importance as they provide a structured and systematic approach to conducting scientific investigations. The following steps promote the credibility of scientific findings.
Step One — Identify the Question
Firstly, scientists identify phenomena they want to investigate. This could be based on an interesting observation that was collected from data, or it could be a mathematical problem that arises out of current theories. As such, the first step is to ask why something is the way it is — defining the research question in established terms, setting up a line of inquiry, and identifying possible methods for answering said question.
Step Two — Make Predictions
After defining a research question, scientists are likely to develop a hypothesis or prediction based on what theoretical framework they adopt or the set of observations they have already made. This particular step in the scientific process is important because it relates to the 'testability' of certain theories or claims about the physical world. Generally, when distinguishing scientific predictions/claims from non-scientific predictions/claims, the difference is whether they are testable or not.
However, just because we cannot test something now doesn't mean it doesn't count as science. As science delves into the ever more extreme part of the physical world, whether they are very small or large in space or long or short in time, our ability to test theory is limited by the types of technology we have. That doesn't mean we shouldn't develop theories that attempt to explain the farthest reaches of the physical world.
For example, for a long time, astrophysicists developed mathematical models of the evolution of the early Universe. However, they did not possess an instrument to confirm their predictions. This did not mean their theories were unscientific. It just meant they had to rely on mathematics and general principles before the James Webb Space Telescope could observe that far back in the early Universe.
Step Three — Gather Evidence
Once a testable prediction or hypothesis has been made, evidence is gathered to test the prediction. Evidence can be acquired in several different ways. Scientists can observe the natural world to see if their models match what is happening in reality; for example, astrophysicists use the James Webb Space Telescope to observe the early Universe to see if their models of galaxy formation match observations.
Scientists can also run experiments in a laboratory, like the particle physicists who smash subatomic particles together at CERN to see what happens next. Or they might input their parameters and run computer simulations. Sometimes scientists will combine each of these strategies, repeat them as many times as possible to replicate their findings and provide them to other scientists to critique their research and give valuable feedback.
Step Four — Analyze the Data
Once scientists have collected their data from their various methods, they then have to organize them into tables, graphs, or diagrams that might show interesting relationships, connections or anomalies that might be important when answering their research question.
Step Five — Form a Conclusion
And lastly, scientists will evaluate their hypothesis or prediction in light of their observations to see if it was supported or not. Sometimes results won't provide a clear answer, and new ways of testing might have to be devised.
Or they might get clear results, send their findings to a scientific journal where it could then get published, peer-reviewed by other scientists and become part of the accepted corpus of knowledge on a particular subject. Sometimes new results might modify or overturn what exists on a given subject already.
Is Science Objective?
Science attempts to be as objective as possible by removing the bias people bring to the scientific process and interpretation of scientific results. Science has a number of ways to help correct these biases, such as using large data sets, peer review and controlling the parameters of experiments.
However, it is important to remember that science is carried out by humans, and things like bias, intuition, and historical contingencies can affect the results and direction of science. For example, scientific explanations are often accused of being 'reductionistic' (e.g., consciousness is the firing of neurons in the brain). However, reductionist explanations of phenomena are largely an artifact of the historical contingencies of science.
The sciences which developed the fastest (physics and chemistry) dealt with small scales of reality, and so scientists applied these approaches to try and explain macroscopic phenomena like consciousness.
All in all, science is the best system we have developed for discerning knowledge about the physical world. Like us, science is a work in progress, and the more we learn about the world and ourselves through science, the better we get at sharpening the tools and methods of science itself.