The Scientific Method

This post follows on from a previous one called Science.

It is surprising how little the scientific method has to do with science.

The scientific method goes like this:

  1. You have a hypothesis about how the world works.
  2. You design an experiment which will either confirm that the hypothesis is true, or show that it is false.
  3. You carry out the experiment.
  4. You explain in detail how you did the experiment and what the results were. You put this information in some public place so that others can repeat the experiment, or critique it.

As an example, take the hypothesis that all falling objects fall towards the ground at the same rate, regardless of how heavy they are (so long as they are heavy enough that air resistance doesn’t play much of a role). It’s pretty easy to test this: you just drop two objects, one of which is heavier than the other, at the same time, and check if they hit the ground at the same time. I did this by holding two pieces of carrot, one about three times bigger than the other, above my head and then releasing them both at the same time. It’s hard to see whether the objects hit the ground at the same time, but it’s quite easy to hear; they hit the ground with one combined thump, not two separate ones. This is not very precise, but it’s still an experiment, and it follows all the rules of the scientific method.

Of course that’s not what we expect a scientific experiment to look like; we expect it to be performed by a scientist, and it should involve precise measurements and complicated apparatus (more complicated than two pieces of carrot, anyway), and it should be published in a scientific journal, not in a blog post. This shows that there is a lot more to what we mean by the word “science” than just the scientific method.