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# The Scientific Method For Beginners

Author Topic:   The Scientific Method For Beginners
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 Message 1 of 138 (514119) 07-03-2009 9:45 PM

Peg has asked to have the scientific method explained.
The scientific method is this:
(1) Formulate a hypothesis.
(2) Using logic, derive predictions from that hypothesis.
(3) Compare the predictions against observation.
(4) If reality corresponds with the predictions of the hypothesis, then we are obliged to regard it a proven theory until and unless we find contrary evidence, at which point we would go back to step (1). Otherwise, we must accept it as a solid theory and can then use it to help us understand and interact with the world.
NOTE: Many people would add another step at the start:
(0) Make observations as a basis for the guess made in step (1).
And in fact this is what usually happens, but it is not strictly necessary: we could pull our hypothesis out of a hat or have it revealed to us by an angel, and we would still be following the scientific method if we tested it against observation.
---
Are there any questions?

 Replies to this message: Message 3 by subbie, posted 07-03-2009 10:25 PM Dr Adequate has replied Message 21 by straightree, posted 07-05-2009 2:12 PM Dr Adequate has not replied Message 58 by kbertsche, posted 08-25-2009 10:15 PM Dr Adequate has replied

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 Message 2 of 138 (514120) 07-03-2009 9:50 PM

Thread moved here from the Proposed New Topics forum.

subbie
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 Message 3 of 138 (514122) 07-03-2009 10:25 PM Reply to: Message 1 by Dr Adequate07-03-2009 9:45 PM

I have a number of small quibbles with your description, mostly related to terminology. However, there is one big exception I take that I will begin with.
Even if our hypothesis does not completely agree with reality, that is seldom a reason to completely dispose of it and start over. I'd venture to guess that very few, if any, hypotheses correspond exactly with reality. Certainly, a hypothesis of any sophistication that attempts to tie many different observations together into a comprehensive theory is very unlikely to be 100% accurate in its first incarnation.
Instead, if a hypothesis has flaws, the first step is to see if the flaws can be corrected while keeping the major premises of the hypothesis intact. Thus, I would add another step, or perhaps modify step (4), to allow for modification of the hypothesis, if possible, to account for discrepancies between the hypothesis and observations made in the testing step.

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. -- Thomas Jefferson
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. -- Barack Obama
We see monsters where science shows us windmills. -- Phat

 This message is a reply to: Message 1 by Dr Adequate, posted 07-03-2009 9:45 PM Dr Adequate has replied

 Replies to this message: Message 4 by Dr Adequate, posted 07-03-2009 10:35 PM subbie has replied

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 Message 4 of 138 (514125) 07-03-2009 10:35 PM Reply to: Message 3 by subbie07-03-2009 10:25 PM

True enough: but my description was not meant to imply that we would have to decide that our initial hypothesis was wrong about everything when we found disconfirming evidence. Obviously when we return to step (1), the partial success of our former hypothesis is one of the facts for which we would want our new hypothesis to account: we must regard this as one of the facts gathered in "step (0)".

 This message is a reply to: Message 3 by subbie, posted 07-03-2009 10:25 PM subbie has replied

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subbie
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 Message 5 of 138 (514127) 07-03-2009 10:43 PM Reply to: Message 4 by Dr Adequate07-03-2009 10:35 PM

I understand that what you are doing to trying to build a bare bones description of the process to establish a starting position for discussion. That's why I'm content to disregard most of the quibbles I mentioned. But I think the idea of modifying a flawed hypothesis needs to be made explicit in even the simplest description.
One common arrow in a cdesign proponentists's quiver is bringing forward some perceived flaw in the the ToE, or some perceived contradictory bit of evidence, as if it will bring the entire edifice tumbling to the ground. Almost invariably, the perceived problem is nonexistent, but I think it's very important to make clear that even if a genuine problem is discovered, no one single straw can break the back of the camel that is the ToE.

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. -- Thomas Jefferson
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. -- Barack Obama
We see monsters where science shows us windmills. -- Phat

 This message is a reply to: Message 4 by Dr Adequate, posted 07-03-2009 10:35 PM Dr Adequate has not replied

 Replies to this message: Message 6 by Coyote, posted 07-03-2009 11:36 PM subbie has not replied Message 9 by CosmicChimp, posted 07-04-2009 8:26 PM subbie has replied

Coyote
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 Message 6 of 138 (514129) 07-03-2009 11:36 PM Reply to: Message 5 by subbie07-03-2009 10:43 PM

The creation "scientific" method
One common arrow in a cdesign proponentists's quiver is bringing forward some perceived flaw in the the ToE, or some perceived contradictory bit of evidence, as if it will bring the entire edifice tumbling to the ground. Almost invariably, the perceived problem is nonexistent...
Creation "science" begins with its conclusion and seeks to bend the evidence to support that conclusion--whether it fits or not. Creation "science" must ignore such evidence as can't be bent or misrepresented to fit the a priori belief they are seeking to support.
This is in stark contrast with real science, which goes where the evidence leads.
A couple of definitions which may help:

Theory: a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses. Theories do not grow up to be laws. Theories explain laws.
Theory: A scientifically testable general principle or body of principles offered to explain observed phenomena. In scientific usage, a theory is distinct from a hypothesis (or conjecture) that is proposed to explain previously observed phenomena. For a hypothesis to rise to the level of theory, it must predict the existence of new phenomena that are subsequently observed. A theory can be overturned if new phenomena are observed that directly contradict the theory. Source
When a scientific theory has a long history of being supported by verifiable evidence, it is appropriate to speak about "acceptance" of (not "belief" in) the theory; or we can say that we have "confidence" (not "faith") in the theory. It is the dependence on verifiable data and the capability of testing that distinguish scientific theories from matters of faith.
Hypothesis: a tentative theory about the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena; "a scientific hypothesis that survives experimental testing becomes a scientific theory"; "he proposed a fresh theory of alkalis that later was accepted in chemical practices."
Contrast this with creation "science"--here's an example, the Creation Research Society:
The Creation Research Society is a professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons who are firmly committed to scientific special creation. The Society was organized in 1963 by a committee of ten like-minded scientists, and has grown into an organization with an international membership.
CRS Statement of Belief
All members must subscribe to the following statement of belief:
• The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in the original autographs. To the student of nature this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.
• All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during the Creation Week described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation Week have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds.
• The great flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Flood, was an historic event worldwide in its extent and effect.
• We are an organization of Christian men and women of science who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman and their subsequent fall into sin is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all mankind. Therefore, salvation can come only through accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.
Source

In addition to the excellent discussions of the scientific method, above, it is illuminating to compare the scientific method with the exact opposite, creation "science."
Summary: Creation "science" starts with the conclusion and twists the data around until it fits, or ignores it if it can't be twisted far enough. Its nothing more than religious apologetics--the exact opposite of the scientific method.

Religious belief does not constitute scientific evidence, nor does it convey scientific knowledge.

 This message is a reply to: Message 5 by subbie, posted 07-03-2009 10:43 PM subbie has not replied

AZPaul3
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 Message 7 of 138 (514191) 07-04-2009 3:50 PM

Peer Review
You left out Peer Review and replication, the very heart of the process that gives it legitimacy.

 Replies to this message: Message 8 by greentwiga, posted 07-04-2009 5:54 PM AZPaul3 has not replied Message 10 by Dr Adequate, posted 07-04-2009 8:35 PM AZPaul3 has replied Message 11 by CosmicChimp, posted 07-04-2009 8:40 PM AZPaul3 has not replied

greentwiga
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 Message 8 of 138 (514200) 07-04-2009 5:54 PM Reply to: Message 7 by AZPaul307-04-2009 3:50 PM

Re: Peer Review
Vital for the scientific method is that you use all the data accumulated. If you start throwing out data that conflicts with your hypothesis, the peer review will reject your paper. One thing that bothers me about the Creation Science group is that they pick and choose the data they want to quote and only use any data that supports their hypothesis. (This from a fundamentalist Christian who would love to find evidence supporting creationism. I can't support this junk.)

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CosmicChimp
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 Message 9 of 138 (514205) 07-04-2009 8:26 PM Reply to: Message 5 by subbie07-03-2009 10:43 PM

Hi Subbie,
The quibbles and subtle points you bring up I see very easily and clearly as being a part of the list of steps given at the start by Dr. Adequate. Specifically, you would want to include a modification of the hypothesis. This is clearly a part of the first step, "(1) Formulate a hypothesis." This your detail, is for me ridiculous. Keeping it simple (void of legalese) lends itself to wider application. The fine points are decided on an individual basis and any scientist will be able to correctly apply the scientific method for his specific situation or area of research. Peer review will show if the choices made, fit.
One common arrow in a cdesign proponentists's quiver is bringing forward some perceived flaw in the the ToE, or some perceived contradictory bit of evidence, as if it will bring the entire edifice tumbling to the ground. Almost invariably, the perceived problem is nonexistent, but I think it's very important to make clear that even if a genuine problem is discovered, no one single straw can break the back of the camel that is the ToE.
I could not disagree more with that final sentence. "Genuine problems" bring down hypotheses and theories. Assuming a hypothesis or theory generally fits, tiny incongruences are the meat of trying to find out where a hypothesis or theory is flawed. The first part of your quote I see as true but those points too fit squarely, for me, in the outline Dr. Adequate gave.

 This message is a reply to: Message 5 by subbie, posted 07-03-2009 10:43 PM subbie has replied

 Replies to this message: Message 27 by subbie, posted 07-13-2009 9:58 PM CosmicChimp has replied

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 Message 10 of 138 (514207) 07-04-2009 8:35 PM Reply to: Message 7 by AZPaul307-04-2009 3:50 PM

Re: Peer Review
You left out Peer Review and replication, the very heart of the process that gives it legitimacy.
What I have described is in fact the very heart of the process. Let's look at the two things you mention.
Peer review. This cannot be "the very heart of the process", because if it was, one man on a desert island wouldn't be able to follow the scientific method: which would be a strange conclusion.
Peer review assists the process because it alllows people to check (a) whether your predictions really are logical consequences of your hypotheses (b) whether there might be some observations already made, contrary to your predictions, of which you were unaware (c) whether there are alternate hypotheses which also predict your observations.
Peer review is therefore a way for scientists to pool their knowledge and intelligence, as indeed is the whole process of publication generally. It is therefore very useful as a social institution, but we can't consider it as essential, since a solitary person on a desert island could prectise science --- just not so well.
Replication. This falls under point (3). If your hypothesis predict that under a given set of circumstances some observation will always be made, and in fact it can only be made occasionally, then obviously your hypothesis has failed the observational test.
Edited by Dr Adequate, : No reason given.

 This message is a reply to: Message 7 by AZPaul3, posted 07-04-2009 3:50 PM AZPaul3 has replied

 Replies to this message: Message 12 by AZPaul3, posted 07-04-2009 9:29 PM Dr Adequate has replied

CosmicChimp
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 Message 11 of 138 (514209) 07-04-2009 8:40 PM Reply to: Message 7 by AZPaul307-04-2009 3:50 PM

Re: Peer Review
Hi AZPaul3,
The points you bring up as missing, I see as being present; clearly present. Wanting to include "peer review" and experimental "replication" is a part of:
quote:
(3) Compare the predictions against observation.
&
(4) If reality corresponds with the predictions of the hypothesis, ....
Specifically including your two items far overreaches any useful purpose. It is needless addition to already listed points. "Short and clear" this is a sought after goal to be maintained in the listing of the method. Needless complication is self defeating in this case.

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AZPaul3
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 Message 12 of 138 (514214) 07-04-2009 9:29 PM Reply to: Message 10 by Dr Adequate07-04-2009 8:35 PM

Re: Peer Review
I will disagree with where the heart is but that is a quibble this thread does not need. You have started a good one and I do not want to fall into distraction.
Our stranded scientist could indeed follow the necessary processes you outline in your OP and could still be well off the mark because he does not have the community of information necessary to confirm his work. We all know of well qualified scientists doing rigorous scientific work who befall the trap of unconscious data mining or, being alone on a desert island, neglect to consider other explanations for the observations made.
And if this thread is intended for Peg and others as instruction then I feel the method must include the processes that give assurance that some particular finding meets the standards of scientific quality and that can only be done through Peer Review.
The replication aspect was not replication by the same team but a separate group trying to duplicate the results as part of the Peer Review process. Think Pons and Fleischmann.
In the absence of a peer review process, I contend our stranded scientist is capable of following a rigorous method but is incapable of calling it science until others have said grace over it.
Further, I contend that as instruction for beginners it is imparative they understand that scientists do not operate in a vacuum (nor a desert island) and their work, not matter how well they follow the other processes in the method, is not science until the rest of us say it is science.

 This message is a reply to: Message 10 by Dr Adequate, posted 07-04-2009 8:35 PM Dr Adequate has replied

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 Message 13 of 138 (514225) 07-05-2009 2:46 AM Reply to: Message 12 by AZPaul307-04-2009 9:29 PM

Re: Peer Review
Our stranded scientist could indeed follow the necessary processes you outline in your OP and could still be well off the mark because he does not have the community of information necessary to confirm his work.
Sure, but then a community of scientists can also be wrong, perhaps because none of them have the necessary information. Once, every Western scientist (or "natural philosopher" as they would have been called back then) would have told you that no mammal laid eggs.
What we can say is that by having more people making conjectures, examining the reasoning, and making observations, we can be more confident in the results, because the scientific method thrives and grows from such activities. But one person following the scientific method is still following it.
---
If a community of scientists is necessary to the scientific method, then how large does the community have to be? You lay yourself open to the Sorites Paradox.
---
Our man on the desert island might eat a meal of purple and yellow berries, and spend the night with acute diarrhea. He might then come up with hypotheses: "only the yellow berries cause diarrhea"; "only the purple berries cause diarrhea"; "both sorts of berries cause diarrhea"; "only in combination do they cause diarrhea"; "the berries had nothing to do with it, to make a connection between these berries and my stomach upset would be merely an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy." He can then test these hypotheses in a manner that is, I trust, obvious. If he does so, would one deny that he is following the scientific method --- just because there are no peer-reviewed journals in which to publish his results?
The replication aspect was not replication by the same team but a separate group trying to duplicate the results as part of the Peer Review process. Think Pons and Fleischmann.
But in such cases this just acts as a social check on whether the person publishing the results is following the scientific method and doing it right: for example, it checks against the possibility that they were publishing completely bogus data.
Our castaway with the multicolored berries doesn't need someone else to check whether he's doing his experiments honestly, or cherry-picking (so to speak) his data.
In the absence of a peer review process, I contend our stranded scientist is capable of following a rigorous method but is incapable of calling it science until others have said grace over it.
Further, I contend that as instruction for beginners it is imparative they understand that scientists do not operate in a vacuum (nor a desert island) and their work, not matter how well they follow the other processes in the method, is not science until the rest of us say it is science.
A curious contention. One either is or is not practicing the scientific method. If one is, one is, whether or not one brings it to someone else's attention.
Edited by Dr Adequate, : No reason given.
Edited by Dr Adequate, : No reason given.

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 Message 14 of 138 (514241) 07-05-2009 8:11 AM Reply to: Message 12 by AZPaul307-04-2009 9:29 PM

Afterthought
I believe I see the difference between our perspectives.
You, it seems, would define the scientific method by reference to what the body of professionals called "scientists" actually do, and then (if you wanted to go into it more deeply) explain why this is the best way of understanding nature.
I, on the other hand, start off by asking how anyone can understand nature at all --- a man on a desert island, or a newborn baby. From there I would work up to explaining how what scientists actually do is (more or less, up 'til now) the best way of achieving this goal.
We might call these "top down" and "bottom up" explanations of science. I wish to explain it from the bottom up.
Hence I begin with this statement: we test the logical consequences of our hypotheses against observation. The question of how we may do this best can then be derived (empirically) from this proposition.
Edited by Dr Adequate, : No reason given.

 This message is a reply to: Message 12 by AZPaul3, posted 07-04-2009 9:29 PM AZPaul3 has replied

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Peg
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 Message 15 of 138 (514243) 07-05-2009 8:27 AM

may i ask where the experimentation comes into it?

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